As the Illinois house OK’s an impeachment inquiry into charges that Gov. Rod Blagojevich tried to sell the remainder of President-Elect Barack Obama’s Senate seat term, Obama’s team said a review shows there was nothing improper in contacts its staffers may have had with the four-letter-word-loving Illinois Governor.
But the AP notes that there is a hitch on the details. It’s a hitch that provides a big sense of deja vu, for those who’ve followed news management as practiced by several administrations facing untidy news tidbits:
An internal review shows aides to President-elect Barack Obama had no “inappropriate discussions” with Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich or his staff concerning the search for a Senate replacement from Illinois, a spokesman for the presidential transition office said Monday.
But spokesman Dan Pfeiffer also said the office won’t release details of its review until the week of Dec. 22 at the request of prosecutors “in order not to impede their investigation of the governor.”
That’s Christmas week, when few people will be paying attention and when Obama plans to be celebrating the holiday in Hawaii.
The brief statement left several issues uncovered. It did not say whether Obama’s incoming White House chief of staff, Rep. Rahm Emanuel, was heard on a wiretap providing the governor’s top aide with a list of names that the president-elect favored.
Nor did it say who if anyone on Obama transition’s team had made contact with the governor or his aides concerning a replacement for Obama.
But the questions now become: with Republican Senator and losing Presidential candidate Sen. John McCain basically saying the RNC should back off and focus on the big issues that Americans need to work on together, is:
*…this an issue that will go anywhere and is really a scandal (for instance in Emanuel talked with the governor’s office about candidates Obama would like but there was nothing said about anything in exchange)
*…this an issue that will help GOPers slow down the Obama administration and its agenda before Obama even sits in the Oval Office seat for one second.
*..this an issue that will hurt the GOP because it has the aroma of the kind of seek-and-demonize-and-destroy politics that many Americans including the vital independent and centrist voters clearly wanted to turn away from on election day.
*..this an issue that will help the GOP in the short term or hurt its prospects in the long terms since it will appeal mostly to those who already didn’t like Obama.
The indicators are mixed…but the McCain reaction doesn’t bode well for the GOP in terms of providing a united front of demands for Obama to provide more details asap.
For instance, a new Rasmussen poll shows a large number of voters think Obama bigwigs were talking to the Governor’s office:
Forty five percent (45%) of U.S. voters say it is likely President-elect Obama or one of his top campaign aides was involved in the unfolding Blagojevich scandal in Illinois, including 23% who say it is Very Likely.
Just 11% say it is not at all likely, according to a new Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey taken Thursday and Friday nights.
Voters nationally are more skeptical than those in Illinois. Thirty-two percent (32%) of Illinois voters said in a survey late last week that there is no way Obama was involved in the Blagojevich case, while only 13% said it is Very Likely that the president-elect was involved, with another 13% saying it is Somewhat Likely.
Jim Lindgren, writing in The legal blog The Volokh Conspiracy, says the statement suggests that it is likely Obama’s staff had some contact with the Gov., but that it wasn’t eyebrow raising in terms of specifics:
While this statement seems on a casual reading to be a denial of contact, it actually implies the opposite: that there were contacts but they were not “inappropriate.” As I’ve argued before, everything points to the Obama camp rejecting any corrupt bargains that may have been offered to them.
It would seem that there are contacts mentioned in the report; otherwise, there would be nothing to hold back for a week. Would it have killed them to admit that there were contacts between the Obama staff and Blagojevioch and his staff (which they couldn’t yet disclose), but these contacts were not inappropriate? It’s as if the Obama camp are responding to a discovery request and they just can’t bring themselves to be fully forthcoming.
….If weekend news stories are correct and Rahm Emanuel (quite appropriately) conveyed a list of candidates that Obama considered acceptable, then this would underscore just how narrowly Obama defines “contact.”
It would seem highly likely that Obama had input into the list of candidates (David Axelrod’s statement three weeks ago implies that he did) and that Emanuel conveyed the list at Obama’s direction. (If Emanuel came up with the list all by himself and conveyed it to Blagojevich without Obama’s permission, I doubt that Obama would want him around as Chief of Staff, and the coverage of the campaign suggests that Obama is a hands-on administrator.)
If all this is correct, then Obama’s agreeing on a written list of Senate candidates acceptable to him and asking his chief of staff to convey that list orally or in writing to Blagojevich does not constitute “contact” in Obama’s mind. Working on a message to a governor and asking it to be conveyed would seem to count as “contact” to me. If these news reports are true, was it really candid to say, “I had no contact with the governor or his office”?
Lindgren says the devil will be in the details the Obama camp releases…or doesn’t release.
The bottom line: if you strip away the chest-beating by conservative talk show hosts such as Rush Limbaugh and writings by people who months ago were demanding McCain raise the Reverend Wright issue (and in recent weeks suggested Obama was disqualified from being President since his birth certificate would probably show that he wasn’t born in the U.S.), you get this:
It’s likely to boil down to a distraction since Obama and his team will have to deal with it, and despite McCain’s comment the RNC will continue in campaign 2008 mode and keep clamoring for more on the issue and raising questions no matter what the final Obama material shows.
The result is sure to be continuing press questions about who on the Obama team talked to Blagojevich and what was said. Last week the Governor was arrested on federal fraud and bribery charges. A key allegation is that Blagojevich sought profit from his ability to fill the US Senate seat Obama had held.
….As President-elect Obama fills out the rest of his cabinet, the questions surrounding staff contacts with Blagojevich are an unwelcome distraction. No wrongdoing by the President-elect or his staff has been charged. In fact, Blagojevich is heard to complain on a court approved wiretap that all the Obama team would offer was “appreciation” for filling the Senate vacancy with someone they liked.
But in the end if there is no “there” there, can it backfire on Republicans? The Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza suggests it could:
National Republicans moved aggressively over the weekend to link scandal-tarred Gov. Rod Blagojevich to President-elect Barack Obama — a guilt-by-association tactic that represents a significant gamble for a party still looking to pick itself up off the electoral mat.
….The goal here is clear: Blagojevich is the prototypical example of political power run amok, and if he can be used in any way to slow Obama’s momentum throughout the transition, then Republicans regard that as a worthwhile endeavor.
At issue for Republicans (and herein lies the risk) is whether, in fact, there is any there there as it relates to Obama’s relationship with Blagojevich. If not, will voters perceive this strategy as nothing more than a partisan attack at a time when people want political leaders to come together to solve problems?
It’s no secret to anyone who has spent any time following Illinois politics that Obama and Blagojevich were not close. By the time Obama was emerging on the national scene in 2004, there was more than a whiff of scandal from the Blagojevich camp. As a result, ANY politician interested in his or her political future stayed as far away from him as possible. (Was anyone else stunning by Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn’s admission on “Meet the Press” that he hadn’t spoken with Blagojevich since August 2007?)
That lack of a relationship between the two men continued as Obama rose higher and higher in national politics.
Cillizza offers some additional facts about the state of the relationship between the President Elect and the man who has allegedly put his Senate Seat up for sale:
As for the conversations between Blagojevich’s insiders and Obama allies, that may be a slightly more lucrative vein for Republicans to mine.
Rep. Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s incoming White House chief of staff, did have more of a relationship with Blagojevich (they both have held the 5th district seat) but the idea that the two men were close is simply not true. (See our point above about ambitious pols staying well clear of Rod.)
That Emanuel spoke to John Harris, the former chief of staff to Blagojevich, about the Senate candidates that would be acceptable to the president-elect is not at all surprising. To our reading, none of the accounts of Emanuel’s conversations with Harris suggest that they were anything other than incoming chief of staff relaying names — far from a crime.
Combine the relative paucity of proof that Obama or anyone in his political inner circle has any strong ties to Blagojevich with the fact that a series of national polls have shown widespread approval for Obama and it becomes clear that Republicans’ strategy is not without risk.
He points to polls showing the GOP has a lot of work to do to tie the Democrats in the way they are perceived by the public. The party is so far south that the polls can be read by Polar Bears.
According to that and other polling data, the mood of the country is clearly pro-Obama (and pro-post partisan politics) at the moment — a development that suggests that the incoming President may well be immune from attacks on his character, at least at the start of his Administration.
In other words: Obama is enjoying his honeymoon and most of the nation that serious thinks about issues — versus those who echo the viewpoints of Rush and Sean — are willing to give him the benefit of the doubt, partially because the United States right now is a nation of grave doubts as it faces critical issues that must be addressed immediately. The bulk of the nation may feel that it is not only not the time for business as usual, but for political campaigns as usual — particularly when the presidential campaign was over less than two months ago and the new President is not even sworn in. Polls do not show that most American agree with writers who claim Obama is already damaged goods and that his term is doomed before he takes the oath on his Bible.
How hard will Republicans continue to push on Obama-Blagojevich? And will it work in their favor or blow up in their faces?
Most likely? It won’t blow up in their faces.
They’ll keep the party faithful in line — but the trial by partisans conducted by some radio and broadcast talk show hosts and new and old media pundits (this does NOT include working reporters who are paid to ask tough questions, fill in holes in reportage, and demand answers from all sides) will likely go on.
And, in the end, the GOP’s image will be exactly what it was on Election Day: of the kind of party former Secretary of State Colin Powell hoped it would move away from being — a party part and parcel of the country’s talk radio culture. A recent story even indicated Karl Rove will be directing a GOP anti-confirmation battle in Congress. So much for election 2008 meaning a new page for a GOP revamped for 21st century constituencies and stylistic political values.
To those who are part of the talk radio political culture, John McCain’s call for unity and tackling the tough issues rather than jumping on the Illinois scandal before all the facts are in will be proof he’s just one more RINO.
Joe Gandelman is a former fulltime journalist who freelanced in India, Spain, Bangladesh and Cypress writing for publications such as the Christian Science Monitor and Newsweek. He also did radio reports from Madrid for NPR’s All Things Considered. He has worked on two U.S. newspapers and quit the news biz in 1990 to go into entertainment. He also has written for The Week and several online publications, did a column for Cagle Cartoons Syndicate and has appeared on CNN.