Blago's shattered immunity

Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich's remake of "Dead Man Walking" before the state's senators was a remarkable performance.  The passion was there, the focus, the sense that this man possessed an absolute certainty about the validity of his cause.  And, as anyone in the communications business will tell you, it also helps if you actually believe what you are saying.  And, in this case, while that belief led to a stellar speech, it is also the fundamental reason why the Governor's argument had to be rejected by the senators sitting in judgment of his fate. 

Rod Blagojevich actually believed every thing he said in his one-hour impassioned plea to keep his job.  He repeatedly told the senators that the "ends don't justify the means."  He seems to be saying that their desire to destroy him politically does not justify using the impeachment process and trumped up charges to thwart the will of the people of Illinois who twice elected him governor.  He truly believes that his amoral approach to public policy, the shakedowns, the threats, the posturing, the relentless spin, was all perfectly acceptable because it was done in furtherance of an agenda of pure beneficence.

The problem with his argument is that he very eloquently contradicted it throughout his speech when asserting that the accusations against him were based on actions he took to achieve unimpeachable (sorry) goals.  It was Blagojevich's goal of providing health care to all children, his goal of providing cheaper re-imported drugs, his goal of saving tax dollars, his goal of providing flu vaccines for the very young and the very old, that led him to do the things that stand to get him kicked to the curb.  He implied that he was being punished for being too good of a governor.  I kept expecting to hear the line, "if I am guilty of anything, it's that I cared too much."

But the essence of the charges against him is exactly the same as those he lobbed back at his accusers.  He is claiming that his end goal of doing all these great things for the people fully justifies his abuse of his legal authority as governor and his violation of the state constitution's separation of powers.  Conversely, he claims that because the senate's goal is to remove him from office because they don't agree with him, the means become illegitimate.

He repeatedly lamented the dangerous precedent the senate would set if they removed him from office because he used means they didn't like to achieve such noble objectives.  He did not address, however, the precedent it would set if governors were allowed to ignore any and all restrictions on their power in order to implement their desired policies.

Make no mistake, the genesis of this impeachment is not Blagojevich's attempt to sell a United States Senate seat.  It is about a relentless pattern of bullying and abusive behavior -- an obsession with style over substance, and a complete inability to work constructively, even with, or especially with, those who share his philosophical views.  These are not new characteristics in a politician, although Blagojevich was able to push the edge of the envelope on each one.   But he repeatedly crossed the line of his authority in doing so.  The details are mundane, but the Governor unilaterally implemented huge policy changes, committed untold millions of taxpayer dollars, used state resources to promote his political agenda and ignored the express and constitutionally valid actions of the legislature, all because he couldn't get his way following the law as it existed.

At the end of the day, this case is completely non-partisan.  It is an embarrassment to Illinois and national Democrats who strongly supported Blagojevich's two election campaigns and who were his enablers, if not his allies.  It is an embarrassment that the state's Republicans could not put forward better candidates even when the public had grave doubts about this man's integrity.  But there is a unanimity of purpose to this impeachment that is about the only heartening thing that can come from this debacle.  The Illinois legislature, although originally prodded by animosity toward the Governor and frustration with his behavior, took a principled stand for the rule of law. 

But had the legislature impeached Blagojevich purely based upon his abuse of power, it would have been a hard case to make to the public.  It is a complex concept and lacks the type of sensationalism that the public needs to focus on such an issue.  In this case, unlike the many instances where elected officials vastly overstep their authority, Blagojevich was kind enough to allow his megalomania to tip the scales and make the public, the media and the political classes shout in unison, "enough."  The embarrassment he has caused shattered the customary immunity Democrats accord each other because their cause is so noble.

Hubris did in Blago. His shakedowns, taped when he knew he was under investigation, gave the legislature ample rope to hang him on grounds they all support. And hang him they did.  Not because he cared too much.  Not because he had been accused of outrageous criminal acts.  But on the grounds he had violated the fundamental principle of our democracy -- that no one person can repeatedly thwart the law, especially the laws designed to prevent absolute power from being concentrated in any one person's hands.

Douglas O'Brien is a public affairs consultant in Chicago
Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich's remake of "Dead Man Walking" before the state's senators was a remarkable performance.  The passion was there, the focus, the sense that this man possessed an absolute certainty about the validity of his cause.  And, as anyone in the communications business will tell you, it also helps if you actually believe what you are saying.  And, in this case, while that belief led to a stellar speech, it is also the fundamental reason why the Governor's argument had to be rejected by the senators sitting in judgment of his fate. 

Rod Blagojevich actually believed every thing he said in his one-hour impassioned plea to keep his job.  He repeatedly told the senators that the "ends don't justify the means."  He seems to be saying that their desire to destroy him politically does not justify using the impeachment process and trumped up charges to thwart the will of the people of Illinois who twice elected him governor.  He truly believes that his amoral approach to public policy, the shakedowns, the threats, the posturing, the relentless spin, was all perfectly acceptable because it was done in furtherance of an agenda of pure beneficence.

The problem with his argument is that he very eloquently contradicted it throughout his speech when asserting that the accusations against him were based on actions he took to achieve unimpeachable (sorry) goals.  It was Blagojevich's goal of providing health care to all children, his goal of providing cheaper re-imported drugs, his goal of saving tax dollars, his goal of providing flu vaccines for the very young and the very old, that led him to do the things that stand to get him kicked to the curb.  He implied that he was being punished for being too good of a governor.  I kept expecting to hear the line, "if I am guilty of anything, it's that I cared too much."

But the essence of the charges against him is exactly the same as those he lobbed back at his accusers.  He is claiming that his end goal of doing all these great things for the people fully justifies his abuse of his legal authority as governor and his violation of the state constitution's separation of powers.  Conversely, he claims that because the senate's goal is to remove him from office because they don't agree with him, the means become illegitimate.

He repeatedly lamented the dangerous precedent the senate would set if they removed him from office because he used means they didn't like to achieve such noble objectives.  He did not address, however, the precedent it would set if governors were allowed to ignore any and all restrictions on their power in order to implement their desired policies.

Make no mistake, the genesis of this impeachment is not Blagojevich's attempt to sell a United States Senate seat.  It is about a relentless pattern of bullying and abusive behavior -- an obsession with style over substance, and a complete inability to work constructively, even with, or especially with, those who share his philosophical views.  These are not new characteristics in a politician, although Blagojevich was able to push the edge of the envelope on each one.   But he repeatedly crossed the line of his authority in doing so.  The details are mundane, but the Governor unilaterally implemented huge policy changes, committed untold millions of taxpayer dollars, used state resources to promote his political agenda and ignored the express and constitutionally valid actions of the legislature, all because he couldn't get his way following the law as it existed.

At the end of the day, this case is completely non-partisan.  It is an embarrassment to Illinois and national Democrats who strongly supported Blagojevich's two election campaigns and who were his enablers, if not his allies.  It is an embarrassment that the state's Republicans could not put forward better candidates even when the public had grave doubts about this man's integrity.  But there is a unanimity of purpose to this impeachment that is about the only heartening thing that can come from this debacle.  The Illinois legislature, although originally prodded by animosity toward the Governor and frustration with his behavior, took a principled stand for the rule of law. 

But had the legislature impeached Blagojevich purely based upon his abuse of power, it would have been a hard case to make to the public.  It is a complex concept and lacks the type of sensationalism that the public needs to focus on such an issue.  In this case, unlike the many instances where elected officials vastly overstep their authority, Blagojevich was kind enough to allow his megalomania to tip the scales and make the public, the media and the political classes shout in unison, "enough."  The embarrassment he has caused shattered the customary immunity Democrats accord each other because their cause is so noble.

Hubris did in Blago. His shakedowns, taped when he knew he was under investigation, gave the legislature ample rope to hang him on grounds they all support. And hang him they did.  Not because he cared too much.  Not because he had been accused of outrageous criminal acts.  But on the grounds he had violated the fundamental principle of our democracy -- that no one person can repeatedly thwart the law, especially the laws designed to prevent absolute power from being concentrated in any one person's hands.

Douglas O'Brien is a public affairs consultant in Chicago