Presented with the opportunity to make an appointment coveted by numerous influential and well-connected politicians, Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich had, according to federal prosecutors, the following reaction: “I’ve got this thing and it’s fucking golden, and I’m not giving it up for fucking nothing.”
Which is the exact same thought process – minus the profanity, at least in some instances – that goes through the mind of every politician in the United States who has a valuable appointment to hand out. But it’s Blagojevich who’s on his way to Club Fed, while a coast-to-coast chorus of elected officials expresses “shock” at his “unconscionable” betrayal of the public trust.
Blagojevich stands accused of putting Barack Obama’s vacated Senate seat out to bid, seeking to cut some kind of deal that would enhance his own political standing, his own legal standing, or his own financial security – or some combination of all three. To be clear, he is certainly a very, very stupid man: Aware that he was already under federal investigation, he conducted these negotiations – or attempts at negotiations – on his own telephone and in explicit terms. He might as well have written a note to U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald reading, “Please indict me.” He also stands accused of other crimes unrelated to Obama’s Senate seat.
But, save for the incriminating distinction that he spelled out every last detail of it on a federal wire, how different was Blagojevich’s scheming in relation to the Senate opening from the kind of horse-trading – much of it subtle and unspoken, but very, very real – that happens virtually every day in virtually every political office in America?
Just consider the case of another recent Senate vacancy.
Three years ago, Jon Corzine decided to run for governor of New Jersey. At the time, he was a United States senator. That meant that, if he won the gubernatorial election, he’d have the power to appoint his own Senate successor. In New Jersey, a state dominated by Democratic politicians but with just one statewide office, there was (and still is) a long line of very ambitious and very powerful men, and the occasional woman, hungry for the once-in-a-generation chance to move up to the Senate.
So far as anyone knows, Corzine never said it, but do you think he never thought in the same terms that Blagojevich did? (“I’m gonna have this thing to give out …”) Certainly, his actions suggest he did.
Obviously, the extravagantly rich Corzine didn’t need campaign cash like Blagojevich did, but he did need help, both to secure the Democratic nomination (at the time, a popular acting governor, Dick Codey, was threatening to challenge Corzine in the primary) and to win in the fall. Enter the ambitious, Senate-hungry Democrats. Corzine would have something they all badly wanted, and they had something he needed.
Enter Robert Menendez, then a congressman from Hudson County and a man who had yearned since his youth to be a senator. Menendez presided over one of the most powerful political organizations in the country, the Hudson County Democratic Organization, a machine whose support basically makes the difference between winning 25 percent and winning 75 percent of Hudson’s vote in a primary (with the county producing about 15 percent of all votes cast in a statewide primary). Corzine badly needed Hudson’s support to keep Codey out of the primary and to win the nomination, and Menendez delivered it in January 2005, almost instantly pushing Codey out of the way. Menendez also made sure his machine was activated that fall, delivering a massive plurality to Corzine that he ended up not needing (the general election was a 10-point rout), but that could have been decisive in a pinch.
A month after the election, Corzine announced that – surprise, surprise – he’d decided to appoint Menendez to his Senate seat. The differences between this and what Blagojevich was trying to do aren’t that stark.
For instance, Blagojevich seemed intent on spelling out the specific terms of a quid pro quo arrangement beforehand. But it’s very doubtful that Corzine and Menendez ever made an explicit arrangement ahead of time. In fact, Corzine (like Blagojevich) actually led other prospective appointees on, hoping to extract maximal cooperation from them. Democratic Congressman Rob Andrews, for instance, abandoned a potential gubernatorial bid of his own, calculating that it would endear him to Corzine – who might then reward him with the Senate seat.
But this only means that, in this rare case at least, the Jersey politicians were actually showing some intelligence. It didn’t take a phone conversation or a meeting of top aides or emissaries for Menendez to know what Corzine wanted from him. The transaction was implicit – but in the end, it very much looked like a transaction.
Corzine could say he made the appointment without cutting any deals with anyone, which was certainly true at a technical level, but he most certainly did get something for it.
And, of course, when Corzine made the announcement, he justified his selection by pointing to Menendez’s obvious qualifications for the job and the vast ideological common ground between the two men – and, for that matter, between Menendez and the majority of voters in New Jersey. There is no doubt that Corzine could tell himself with a straight face that he had made a responsible choice and picked a senator who would serve the state well.
But, had he not been snared by the feds, wouldn’t Blagojevich have been able to say the same thing? The criminal complaint suggests that, among others, he was considering appointing Valerie Jarrett, a respected Chicago civic leader; Lisa Madigan, the state’s attorney general; Jesse Jackson Jr., a 12-year congressman; or even one of his deputy governors. Deliberating between them at one point, according to the feds, Blagojevich said: “It’s got to be good stuff for the people of Illinois and good for me.” Isn’t that just what Corzine did in New Jersey?
This is not to pick on Jon Corzine, who by most accounts is a far more pleasant person than Rod Blagojevich. His is just one example of the kind of implicit dealing (or explicit dealing that simply isn’t picked up on a wire) that goes on all the time in politics.
Does anyone think that Joe Biden’s cuteness with setting a Senate exit date had to do with anything other than creating a best-case scenario for his own son, Delaware Attorney General Beau Biden, to gain the seat as quickly as possible? But, so far at least, tape recordings of those machinations haven’t emerged, so officially Biden’s former chief of staff is taking the seat as a “caretaker” for two years only in the interest of “letting the people decide.”
It’s true that Blagojevich, who’d been under the microscope long before Obama even launched his presidential campaign, was going down anyway. But when it comes to that Senate seat, his real crime may be forgetting the old truism: Never write when you can speak; never speak when you can nod; and never nod when you can wink.