Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The Slow Boat to Impeachment

I've taken a slew of calls from national political reporters and other people who live outside of Illinois on the Blagojevich impeachment proceedings. The first thing I tell them is that this isn't political, and it isn't legal. These proceedings are personal. And there isn't a damn thing that's going to happen until the Illinois Supreme Court rules on Lisa Madigan's motion. Period.

Trying to understand what is happening through the lens of public opinion polls or reading the Constitution won't help. There's only one poll that matters. What does Michael Madigan (Illinois House Speaker and proud papa of Illinois' Attorney General, Lisa Madigan) want (and when)?

Like I said, nothing's going to happen until the Supreme Court decides on Lisa's motion.


While Illinois' extreme tolerance of corruption -- a tolerance made more obvious by the slow motion movement towards possible impeachment -- baffles the rest of the country, I return to an almost constant refrain: Illinois is not a reform state. Illinois did not go through the monumental Progressive reforms of the early 20th century. In fact, just the opposite. Most of Illinois' politicians are proud that we are the last (political) machine state. "It works."

Actually, the inference that Illinois' machine politics has a pragmatic value is a myth. The machine politics here hasn't made Illinois more efficient, or given us better government service, or "made the trains run on time." Just the opposite. Illinois' governments are extremely inefficient, designed to produce political favors not public service. If you live in the wrong part of the 50th ward (in Chicago), for example, good luck in getting your streets plowed or your curbs fixed. Illinois' political corruption isn't efficient, it is corrosive. Ask anyone who's sat on the tracks of the Brown line for half an hour or so. Illinois' political corruption costs every single Illinois resident money, time and patience. State Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias just announced that this particular corruption scandal has already cost us 20 million dollars. It hadn't even been a week yet. (We are all hoping that the costs of the current scandal isn't $20M a week.)

The Illinois House's slow motion movement towards impeachment isn't extraordinary, it's fairly typical. Rod Blagojevich may have been asking what he could get for his appointment of a replacement senator, but Michael Madigan is now asking himself what he can get out of these impeachment proceedings. He's the one currently in control of Illinois' politics. And glory and recognition for his daughter seems to be the going price these days.

It's another myth that this is just about Rod Blagojevich. It's not. Rod Blagojevich is just another representative of the Illinois political system. The problem that people outside of Illinois have is that they view all this (political corruption) in the context of Barack Obama, thinking he came out of this political system or that everyone does it. That is a huge mistake. While it certainly suits the purposes of the president-elect to focus our attention on the clearly corrupt and horrifying practices of the governor, it is important to remember that Blagojevich represents the common practices of Illinois politicians. Barack Obama represents the minority of Illinois' reform-minded but pragmatic politicians who take on the machine when appropriate but live side-by-side it as well. Most of Illinois' reformers fly under the radar, sometimes as gadflies, and gain skills and power by circumventing the machine in various ways.

The political reformers, like Barack Obama, are a reaction to -- not an outgrowth of -- Illinois' corrupt political system.

The best way to understand the difference between the machine Democrats like Blagojevich, the Madigans and Strogers (among others) and the political reformers like Barack Obama, Alexi Giannoulias, Forrest Claypool, John Fritchey and Debra Shore (among others) is that the reformers are forced to network outside the traditional political circles in Illinois. IOW, Illinois' political reformers have to build it themselves. If you want to understand Barack Obama's intuitive understanding of technology, strategy and tactics -- an understanding that allowed him to outmaneuver the vaunted political skills of the Clintons -- you have to realize that he's been doing this (outmaneuvering the political elites) from the beginning more than a dozen years ago. Obama didn't suddenly appear with these skills, he's been developing them all along.

While people may be amazed at the byzantine nature of Illinois politics, it's really simple. Rod Blagojevich was caught in a "corruption crime spree." Think of him as a wannabe crime boss, the pretender posing as the head of a (crime) family. Think of Michael Madigan as the family Don. As such, Speaker Madigan may want to wait to see if his daughter's legal motion provides "relief" to this scandal not just for her political advancement, but also because it allows the pretender to twist in the wind for awhile. It "sends a message" to all those who might be scheming to replace the Don. The Sopranos couldn't have done it better.

This is Illinois. The legacy of Al Capone is a lot stronger than you might think. It's certainly stronger than most of us would want. It's not (just) Blagojevich, it's the whole political system. The proclivity towards (political) crime simply makes the emergence of the Elliot Ness' inevitable. The pervasiveness of Illinois' corruption makes the determination of its reformers stronger. Only the smart survive, because they have to navigate a corrupt system to survive.

What this means for America is that Barack Obama is bringing a commitment to smart governance to the White House. And smart government is Change We Can Believe In.

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