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January 07, 2009

Backbone: Ur doin' it wrong, Harry

Various commentators have argued that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid had to make a big fuss over the seating a disgraced Illinois governor's appointee to fill Barack Obama's old Senate seat. Reid and the national Dems had to show backbone on this issue, they said.

This doesn't look like backbone. It looks like craven facing down corrupt Democrats over process. If this is a political ploy to appear to show backbone, it's not working. Op/eds and talking heads aren't gushing about Harry Reid's principled leadership or the national Democrats' tough line on corruption.

Instead, everyone's muttering about how Reid kind of had to do this in order to seem tough on corruption, but even these same commentators aren't fooled.

If you're going to stand on principle, at least pick a good principle to stand on.

The Dems are searching for an ad hoc justification to thwart Blago. They have, at best, a tenuous legal basis for refusing to seat Burris. Reid and Obama want to make a big show of repudiating Blagojevich. That's not standing on principle, that's caving to political expediency.

As Sen. Diane Feinstein pointed out yesterday, acting as if the Secretary of State has veto power sets a bad precedent for all future gubernatorial appointments. Tactically, they gave the crazy governor and his flunky exactly what they wanted: A big embarrassing scene. 

Reid should drop this silly crusade as soon as possible. The alternative is to deprive the people of Illinois of a senator and while canceling out the Democrats' hard won gains in the Senate. When it comes to political theater, "I am not a crook like that guy" is a non-starter.

Update: Looks like the Dems are going to seat Burris after all.

Update II: Reid's spokesman told TPM's Election Central blog that those reports are "wrong."


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Every state should have elections to fill Senate vacancies.

That would be democratic.

The appointment system is from the Bad Old Days before Senators were elected.

Alaska has already changed its law to hold elections to fill Senate vacancies.

Senators sometimes serve for decades. Let the people decide who should get to start a possibly long Senate career.

Agreed. It's much easier to hold a snap election in the days of motorized transportation and mass communication. Even in the old days, countries with parliamentary systems managed to hold snap elections all the time.

A political science prof pointed out to me in an email that one disadvantage of special elections in the US is that turnout is low and the influence of organized special interests is therefore felt disproportionately. That's unfortunate, but it's not like special interests don't sway gubernatorial appointments and low turnout should be addressed directly. If people aren't voting, that's a problem in itself and it's not like there's nothing that can be done.

I would love to see more snap elections in the US. I wonder how the parties (and special interests) would approach an election without a long run-up (or a primary). It would be a great experiment in the ever-fading American tradition of political experiments.

At the same time, appointments wouldn't be such a big deal if incumbency weren't so powerful in subsequent elections. It feels like we're stuck in usual morass of electoral reform: Small experiments don't dislodge the fundamental problems, and there's no way that we're changing the fundamentals.

Every four years, there's a minor scandal that arises from how broken the system is. I'm not living in the US right now. Is any major media figure speaking to the big issue here?

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