An Intrusive Spotlight on Leadership

A few days ago, the Chicago Sun-Times reported that Harry Reid phoned Rod Blagojevich in early December to discuss the vacant Senate seat that Blagojevich was about to fill by appointment. In the conversation, according to the paper, the Senate majority leader made it clear that he would rather U.S. Representatives Jesse Jackson Jr. and Danny Davis and State Senate President Emil Jones not be appointed.

On Sunday, Reid appeared on “Meet the Press” and, not surprisingly, tried to downplay the report, branding it “part of Blagojevich’s cloud.”

“He’s making all this up,” Reid insisted. “I had a conversation with him. I don’t remember what was in the conversation, other than the generalities that I just talked about. I didn’t tell him who not to appoint.”

Asked if he has always considered Jackson an “acceptable” choice for the appointment, Reid replied that “Jesse Jackson Jr. is somebody that I think would be a good senator.”

These comments left plenty of wiggle room, and very intentionally so. Note, for instance, that Reid merely said that Jackson would be a “good” senator. That is not the same thing as saying Jackson would have been a “good” appointment, because one can perform all of the official functions of a senator (floor votes, committee work, etc.) quite well without being a strong candidate for re-election. Reid, it seems, stepped around the question of Jackson’s electoral prospects, which were supposedly at the heart of his call to Blagojevich.

This evasiveness is perfectly understandable. Reid has been caught in a tricky spot. His sort-of denials aside, it’s hard to believe he didn’t seek to deliver a message to Blagojevich about which candidates he would and would not like to see appointed. That’s what party leaders in the Senate (and House, for that matter) are supposed to do, in the same way that they involve themselves in recruiting promising candidates to run for open seats and against vulnerable members of the other party. This is true for Harry Reid as it is for Mitch McConnell.

But all of this is supposed to play out behind the scenes. Publicly, party leaders, like all politicians, are supposed to pretend that high-minded policy objectives, and not petty horserace calculations, dominate their minds. They also don’t want to make it look as if they’re throwing their weight around in a particular state, which might give voters the impression that powerful forces in Washington are trying to pick their elected officials – even though, quite often, that’s exactly what’s going on.

A perfect example of this came in 2002, when New Jersey’s Bob Torricelli abruptly quit his re-election bid a month before Election Day. The state Democratic Party (meaning then-Governor Jim McGreevey) was charged with choosing his replacement candidate. The contest was competitive (Torricelli had been losing badly when he quit), and McGreevey initially proposed an obscure state legislative leader as the new candidate. Tom Daschle, then the Democratic leader in the Senate, immediately got on the phone with McGreevey and disabused him of that notion, and the Daschle-backed Frank Lautenberg ended up with the job.

So Reid isn’t supposed to admit that he did what Daschle did in ’02 – telling a governor that some potential nominees would be more acceptable than others. And, for some sensitive P.R. reasons, he’s especially not supposed to admit that the three candidates he weighed in against are all black. But it sounds like that’s exactly what he did.

Granted, Reid might have had a clever, indirect way of doing this – the Sun-Times report suggested that Rahm Emanuel, Barack Obama’s soon-to-be chief of staff, first phoned Blagojevich’s office with a heads-up that Reid would be calling and a tip that the majority leader was “pushing against Jackson and others.” Conceivably, this advisory could have created a backdrop for the eventual Reid-Blagojevich chat that would have allowed Reid to make his point without naming names. One way or another, he surely made his voice heard.

And he had good reason to. Illinois leans strongly to Democrats, but it’s certainly willing to vote for a Republican under the right circumstances. As recently as 1998, a Republican, Peter Fitzgerald, won a Senate race, and the state has elected numerous governors from the G.O.P., including George Ryan and Jim Edgar. At the time of Reid’s call, it was assumed that the appointed senator from Illinois would face the voters in 2010. In the wake of the Blagojevich scandal, and with mid-term elections traditionally favoring the opposition party, a strong G.O.P. candidate would have a fair shot of winning – especially against a politically weak appointed senator.

And, fair or not, there would have been good reason for Reid to be wary of Jackson, Davis and Jones.

Jackson and Davis both represent House districts that are overwhelmingly black and Democratic, not exactly representative of Illinois as a whole. Thanks to his association with his father and some of his own self-promoting efforts, Jackson could easily alienate suburban swing voters. Davis, with his far-left views, association with the Rev. Sun Myung Moon (Davis crowned him the “King of Peace” at a 2004 ceremony), might do the same. And Jones, a 73-year-old political lifer from Chicago, could be tagged as the consummate machine candidate – a fatal attribute in the suburbs.

To Reid, whose bottom line is the protection of a strong majority in Washington, these are all red flags. But to admit that he had such reservations about these prospective appointees would be to bring a host of political problems on himself. For one thing, he’d alienate Jackson and Davis, although that’s probably already happened, after the Sun-Time story was published.

But he also risks creating friction with black leaders in Washington, who are quite sensitive to the behind-the-scenes maneuvering of (generally white) party leaders on matters like this. From the black leaders’ perspective, “electability” arguments almost always result in black politicians being overlooked when open seats come up or when marquee candidates are needed. There is plenty of legitimacy to this gripe.

Fair or not, though, Reid correctly identified the three most obviously problematic Senate appointees on Blagojevich’s radar, and – almost certainly – he did what anyone in his position would have: he weighed in against them. To have done anything else would have been a dereliction of his duties.

An Intrusive Spotlight on Leadership