The appointment of Burris is a pure impeachment-defense tactic from Blagojevich. First, he’s making a public case that no crime was actually committed. If Burris was appointed without any quid pro quo (highly likely, since Burris has no great wealth or influence), then Blagojevich can argue that all the talk about other possible appointments were just that — talk. And talk is not a crime. Is anyone going to buy that? Well, even if only ten percent of Illinois voters buy it, Blagojevich will have doubled his support, so why not? There’s a certain freedom in nearly complete unpopularity.
But second, and more important for Blagojevich’s survival plans, he’s chosen to play the race card. To anyone who thought that the election of Barack Obama would diminish the power of racial politics, today’s press conference was depressing — especially the appalling spectacle of Rep. Bobby Rush using the word “lynch” in reference to criticism of Burris, then Blagojevich repeating the phrase while wagging a finger at the press corp on the way out of the room. For a Governor looking to rally support in the House and Senate to avoid impeachment or convinction, it’s a smart move. A combination of African American and Latino Senators could be sufficient to save Blagojevich from a conviction in the Illinois Senate. It probably won’t work, but Blagojevich has few options left.
I really wouldn’t underplay what’s in the first paragraph. If you read Patrick Fitzgerald’s official complaint against Blagojevic, I think you’ll reach the conclusion that the criminal case against him on the Senate seat issue isn’t very strong. There’s other, better stuff in the indictment, but that particular charge seems to have been brought somewhat prematurely. I’d say that was a reasonable use of a prosecutor’s discretion — actually sitting on the wiretap until the seat had already been auctioned off would not have served the public interest. But it means Fitzgerald is moving forward with a relatively weak charge.
Under the circumstances, for Blago to have granted everyone’s requests for him to leave the seat unfilled would have been something of an admission of guilt. Conversely, making an appointment and making it a clean one — a qualified guy who’s not discussed on any of the wiretaps and who isn’t offering any bribes — has a lot of exculpatory power in terms of mounting a criminal defense.
The whole thing, however, serves as a reminder that this problem is a problem in the first instance for the Illinois legislature. The criminal justice system, quite rightly, moves deliberately and requires certain standards of evidence. But a political process such as an impeachment can move at a different pace and can properly employ different standards. And faced with this sort of public corruption the imperative isn’t on getting the guy to do jail time, it’s on getting the guy out of office so the people of Illinois can have a real governor. It’s a bit bizarre that it’s taking them so long — they need to hurry up and remove the man from office.