The Beginning of the End for Senator Burris

Roland Burris insists that he wasn’t "trying to slip something by anybody" last month, even though that’s precisely what he did.  

In early January, Mr. Burris appeared before the Illinois state legislative committee that was looking into impeaching then-Governor Rod Blagojevich. It was a critical moment in his suddenly revived political career. Despite initial resistance, Democratic leaders in the U.S. Senate – spurred by surprising public support for Mr. Burris – were on the verge of consenting to his appointment, although they attached one big condition: that Mr. Burris emerge unscathed from a grilling by the impeachment panel.

At the hearing, one legislator asked Mr. Burris if he had had any contact with Mr. Blagojevich’s inner circle (and specifically with Mr. Blagojevich’s brother) prior to his appointment. Mr. Burris instantly recognized the danger of answering this question forthrightly. So he stalled, launching into a detailed description of an innocuous, months-old phone call with a former Blagojevich chief of staff (not the same chief of staff who was arrested with Mr. Blagojevich back in December).

Eventually, Mr. Burris was cut off. Other questions were asked. The subject was changed. Mission accomplished. He had avoided telling any outright lies while leaving the impression that his pre-appointment contact with Mr. Blagojevich’s team was utterly insignificant. A few days later, he was officially a member of the U.S. Senate.

Now, of course, we know better. Mr. Burris had at least three conversations with Mr. Blagojevich’s brother and inner circle, and he was asked to raise money for the governor. The disclosure came in "supplemental" documents that Mr. Burris provided to the committee recently – possibly after learning that at least one of those conversations was secretly recorded by the feds.

You can’t blame Mr. Burris for trying. Even if he really did refuse the fund-raising overtures, the controversy set off by this disclosure last month very well could have turned public opinion against him and killed his appointment. At the very least, it would have put a cloud over him that would have severely complicated his hopes of retaining the seat in the 2010 election.

His appointment was the big break Mr. Burris had always dreamed of. Why risk it by disclosing something that might never come out? (Apparently the example of Tom Eagleton, who famously assured George McGovern’s handlers that there was nothing "troublesome" in his background, wasn’t weighing on Mr. Burris.)

The good news for Mr. Burris is that he’s probably untouchable, at least in the short-term. It doesn’t appear that he told any overt lies at the hearing; his were sins of omission. This should shield him from the perjury prosecution that Illinois Republicans are now demanding.

In theory, Mr. Burris’ Senate colleagues could vote to expel him, but this, too, isn’t realistic. No doubt, Democrats would just as soon be done with him, but trying to kick him out would prompt loud cries of selective punishment from civil rights groups. This is not a fight Democrats want to have. Senate Republicans would just as soon keep Mr. Burris around, since his lingering presence only improves their prospects of claiming his seat in next year’s election. And the idea that Mr. Burris might be pressured to resign is simply preposterous; this is his moment, and he won’t give it up for anything.

But the long-term prognosis for Mr. Burris is now grim.

Rather amazingly, he had seemingly emerged from the Blagojevich fiasco with a reasonable chance of winning a full term in ’10. A poll taken at the end of January, after he officially joined the Senate, found Mr. Burris leading two rival Democrats in a prospective primary and also defeating the two most likely G.O.P. nominees. His numbers left plenty to be desired – a troublesome 35 percent unfavorable rating – but it wasn’t a bad place to start. As Mr. Blagojevich faded from the front pages and Mr. Burris settled into the Senate, it was fair to assume, the new senator’s standing – within his party and among the general electorate – would improve.

Now, though, the ghost of Mr. Blagojevich is sure to haunt Mr. Burris well into 2010. The media will continue asking questions and Republicans (in Illinois more than Washington) will continue branding him dishonest and illegitimate. His numbers will not be improving.

A primary challenge is now a certainty (assuming Mr. Burris decides to run), but here Democrats must be careful: Mr. Burris will likely benefit from strong African-American support. If multiple Democrats jump into the race, Mr. Burris could corner the market on the black vote and eke out the nomination with an unimpressive plurality, maybe 30 percent of the vote. In a general election, especially in a year when the national climate probably won’t be as favorable to Democrats as it was in 2008 and 2006, he’d be highly vulnerable.

The challenge for Democratic leaders, then, will be uniting early behind a consensus Burris opponent and not providing the appointed incumbent an opening to win. As mischievous as it may seem, this could include trying to coax the ambitious Jesse Jackson, Jr. into the race, whose presence would (at the least) split the black vote and destroy Mr. Burris’ longshot victory strategy.

No matter what, though, it looks like Mr. Burris won’t be in the Senate come 2011. If he hadn’t managed to slip something past the state legislature last month, he wouldn’t have gotten to the Senate in the first place. The Beginning of the End for Senator Burris