Meritocracy, Anyone? – Part 2

If ever there were a more comical sideshow in American politics currently than the plight of Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich, I can’t think of it. The economy is continuing its downward spiral, Congress has effectively checked itself out until the new year, and South Asia is reasserting itself as the most dangerous part of the world, much to the consternation of American foreign policy. Yet the ineptness and strangely frank and upfront attempts at corruption displayed by Governor Blagojevich have pushed all that bleakness aside.

Congratulations must be made to the governor. We needed a good, old-fashioned political suicide to seize some airtime from all the awful news the talking heads have been spewing of late. Another half million jobs lost in November? The big three automakers about to disappear? Continued foreclosures? Markets that have lost all concept of rationality? Oh, and we’re losing more ground in Afghanistan? Who cares?! This is the most entertaining implosion of a public official we’ve had in a long while, even better than Elliot Spitzer. That was shocking, yes, but trying to sell an appointment to the United States Senate? That is just epic.

And the evidence is overwhelming. Blagojevich was caught on tape practically foaming at the mouth in anticipation of the riches he thought were coming his way, despite knowing that he was being bugged. Incredible. To U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald’s credit, he pounced on Blagojevich before the governor consummated any deal, thus hurting his chances at securing a conviction against Blagojevich, but rightfully setting in motion a process to remove the power of appointment from the governor’s hands. So now the Illinois legislature is going to do what every state should do when faced with vacant seats in Congress. They are going to call a special election to fill the seat.

I am not a fan of filling elected positions with appointees except in extreme circumstances, such as Congress being unable to assemble quorums due to vacant seats. In that case, it is essential that power vacuum be filled as quickly as possible. Such a scenario would only likely occur if there were some devastating attack or disease. Thankfully, this is not the case. The vacant seat in Illinois was held by President-elect Obama, and there is no dire need to fill it immediately. There are two years left on the term, plenty of time for candidates to declare and the state to organize an election.

In 1913, Congress and the states wisely passed and ratified the 17th Amendment to our Constitution, making United States Senator a position directly elected by the people of a state. Electing a lawmaker is one of the central tenets of democracy. It is the very basis of representation in democratic government. The temptations created by denying that power to the people and instead leaving it to one person were clearly too much for Governor Blagojevich. The other two Senate appointments, to seats vacated in New York and Delaware, have themselves been hardly representative of the will of the people, even while they have remained within the bounds of the law.

In New York, where the seat is being vacated by Hillary Clinton, no decision has been made. Conventional wisdom has it that Governor David Paterson’s choice could have a two-fold purpose. One, he would appoint someone who could be an effective advocate for the state during the economic crisis. Good. Two, the person he appoints would otherwise be a barrier to the governor’s reelection in 2010. Bad. In addition, a Kennedy has tossed her hat into the ring in New York, despite never having been elected to public office before. Despite any qualifications she may possess, her last name is being given far too much consideration.

Governor Paterson has been tight-lipped about his choice, and prematurely condemning him for a choice that serves his own political ambitions or could be compared to gifting privileged aristocrats is unfair, but the fact he has those options at all is disturbing.

In Delaware, Governor Ruth Ann Minner has already appointed Ted Kaufman to fill out the remainder of Vice President-elect Joe Biden’s term. Kaufman is a longtime adviser to Biden, and is widely seen as keeping the seat warm for the time when Biden’s son can run for the seat.

So, in effect, of the three senate seats appointed or to be appointed by state governors, one was being auctioned to the highest bidder, another could serve the reelection ambitions of a sitting governor by removing an obstacle, and the last is seen as an attempt to incorporate a senate seat into the family business. Surely, the voters can do better than this.

On a side note, the sideshow to the sideshow, as it were, it did not take long for the partisan attacks on Barack Obama to begin. Obama and his staff are going to come out of the Blagojevich debacle untarnished, but the attempts to link Obama to the governor’s corruption are in indication that politics has returned to its normal state of partisan warfare. The Republicans will spend the next four years searching for any opening, exploiting any weakness, and attacking Obama anywhere they can. More than the Democrats, the GOP seems to feel the Oval Office belongs to them, any Democrat occupying it is merely an aberration, and everything must be done to make his job as difficult as possible. It’s a shame, but Obama will have to expend an extraordinary amount of energy the next four years just deflecting political attacks.