Reasons to think twice about seating Roland Burris

Democrats should be the party of integrity in the wake of crippling corruption scandals for Republicans -- and racial politics can backfire.

By Joan Walsh

Published January 7, 2009 11:49PM (EST)

Tuesday night I started writing a post urging Barack Obama and Harry Reid to hang tough on seating Roland Burris (though I noted that Reid, at least, is not known for hanging tough, on anything). I wanted to think it through carefully, because many of my friends in the blogosphere, particularly Digby and Jane Hamsher, mostly disagree with me -- and now, apparently, so do Obama and Reid. By the time I was at my desk this morning, there were multiple reports that Burris would be seated -- and that Obama was urging Reid to reverse himself.

I've never let being in the political minority shut me up, though on this question, since so many smart people disagree, it's entirely possible that I'm wrong. Increasingly, legal scholars are lining up to say Reid had no standing to block Burris, and ultimately, that may be the end of the argument. But there's still peril in Reid and Obama's change of heart on Burris, and here's how I see it.

First of all, GOP corruption in the Bush era was a huge reason Democrats won back Congress in 2006 and expanded their gains in 2008: It wasn't just Republican incompetence from New Orleans to Iraq that elected a Democratic congressional majority two-plus years ago; it was also the hideous political and financial corruption of Jack Abramoff, Duke Cunningham, Bob Ney, Ted Stevens et al. (not to mention the legal and political corruption of Scooter Libby, Karl Rove and Dick Cheney and the sexual and political corruption of Mark Foley and Ted Haggard). Fully 47 percent of voters in 2006 exit polls said Republican corruption was why they voted for Democrats. Reid and Obama were right to try to steer the party away from association with leaders who have more in common with Stevens, Cunningham and Ney than Obama and Joe Biden. Imagine what Democrats would be saying if the parties were reversed.

I also believe outdated racial politics will backfire on Democrats and Obama. Every Democrat (and pundit) who said Blagojevich shouldn't appoint a new senator given his indictment should be politically skewered if they changed their mind upon the appointment of an African-American senior statesman -- including Burris and Obama, frankly, who both urged Blagojevich to avoid that course last month. If I had any doubt about the case against Blagojevich's choice, it disappeared when Rep. Bobby Rush compared opposing Burris to a lynching last week. On "Hardball" today, Rush was even worse, comparing Burris' walk from the Capitol in the rain Tuesday to "the dogs being sicced on children in Birmingham, Ala." in 1963. Rush has lost all sense of proportion and decency on this issue. Yes, it's disturbing that without Burris, the Senate would once again be all white, but Illinois, the state that elected two African-American senators and gave us our first black president, doesn't deserve a scandal-tainted senator chosen by racial guilt.

Finally, speaking of politics: Burris is a four-time statewide loser. Sure, he won the attorney general seat and three races for controller, but more recently he's lost two primaries for governor and two for senator, and he'll have an uphill climb to win election in 2010 even with this appointment. I remember Burris from my professional youth in 1980s Chicago. He was a passive Illinois pol who expended little political capital during the legendary Harold Washington's racial and ideological "Council Wars" with conservative white Chicago.  Burris is now the champion of professionally black Chicago activists, but he opposed Carol Moseley Braun in her Senate primary against Alan Dixon, who'd sided with Clarence Thomas over Anita Hill the year before. So nothing about this issue is, ahem, completely black and white.

Imagine that Blago had appointed a white Roland Burris, middle-of-the-road, relatively clean but not a big reformer, a four-time loser for governor and senator with one statewide win behind him/her, who isn't given a strong chance to run and win in 2010. I find it hard to imagine that Obama and Reid would have reversed their principled anti-Blagojevich stand to back a vaguely qualified but mediocre white cadidate. And what about poor Rep. Danny Davis, the black Chicago congressman who reportedly turned down an appointment by Blago because that's what he thought a good Democrat was supposed to do? If Davis knew Reid and Obama would fold so quickly, he might be the one sitting in Washington being hailed as the junior senator from Illinois right now.

Still, this issue looks like it's heading for a resolution in which Burris gets seated, and given the enormous challenges facing Obama and Senate Democrats, I can even sort of understand why they folded (also: Reid's legs are accordion-pleated under his trousers). But I still find this issue troubling, and I think it could backfire on Democrats politically down the road, as they try to present themselves as the party of integrity on political corruption as well as race, with Blagojevich and Burris living examples of how messy politics can get in both parties.



Joan Walsh

Joan Walsh is the author of "What's the Matter With White People: Finding Our Way in the Next America."

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