If we were talking about anyone else, I'd say that by the time President Obama goes before the Congress on Tuesday to deliver a speech in lieu of the State of the Union, the man appointed to replace him in the Senate will have resigned, deciding, in the best interests of his state, his party, and his country, to return to the obscurity of his private life.
But since we are talking about the monumentally egomaniacal Roland Burris, the chance of this development is close to zero. Burris, who rode into the Senate on the strength of one of the most cynical, race-based political ploys of all time, is having a hard time seeing the trouble he's in. Accusations of lying to a state impeachment panel about his contacts with disgraced former Gov. Rod Blagojevich have sparked an investigation by the Senate Ethics Committee to go along with state probes back in Illinois. But Burris is as desperate to keep the title of senator before his name as he was to get it there in the first place. The likely result is that for weeks to come, we will be hearing more gory details about how deeply entangled Burris was in the pay-for-play schemes that led to the arrest of Blagojevich on corruption charges.
After insisting that there were never any discussions between him and Blagojevich about political favors in exchange for the Senate seat, Burris, in recent days, has amended and extended his response to those questions to admit that, well, there were some. First, the governor's brother asked him for a contribution to Blagojevich's re-election campaign, and then, Burris admitted, he did try to raise money for the governor, all the while making sure that his interest in the Senate seat was known.
It is tawdry enough that his hometown newspaper is leading a charge calling for Burris to resign, but the senator, whose narcissism is notable even in political circles, will see it as an act of courage to defy those calls. And it'll get tawdrier and tawdrier. I suspect that at some point, the president will have to distance himself from his old Senate seat. It’s difficult to imagine any scenario in which Burris simply steps down. It may take direct urgings from the White House to get Burris to go.
Democrats desperately need that seat and that vote, as the roll call on the stimulus package showed, but Burris is becoming a larger embarrassment everyday.
Ironically, these recent developments are ultimately helpful to the Democrats -- whatever happens in the short term, Burris is out of the 2010 equation. While there may still be a heated primary, the Burris implosion will allow Democrats to wage a battle for the seat without having to worry about how to handle a problematic incumbent.
Burris, 71, had pledged to seek re-election next year, which worried many Democrats who believed that he couldn't win. But they were concerned, fairly, about the political risk involved if they are perceived to be throwing an incumbent senator, and the only African American in the Senate, under the bus.
The same political discomfort that complicated the debate about whether to seat Burris in the Senate after he was appointed by the tainted Blagojevich was likely to reappear in the re-election fight, and there was no guarantee that Burris would handle it any better then he did a month ago. Burris' actions will relieve some of that pressure. Even if he survives and remains in the Senate through the end of next year, he will have no chance of mounting a viable campaign for re-election. He will have no money and no natural base.
The tragedy of Roland is that he cheaply ruined his chance to live out his dream of being in high office -- he ran for governor twice -- and to quietly add some sheen to an otherwise ordinary political career. Ego alone made him one of the few, maybe the only person, who would have accepted an appointment from Blagojevich under the circumstances. Blagojevich decided to play the race card against a Senate leadership who said it would not seat anyone he appointed, and it worked, because he had Burris to play along.
As I noted back then, the story was never really about Burris; it was about Blagojevich and Harry Reid and his all-white Senate. Against that backdrop, there was no reason for Burris to lie about his relationship with Blagojevich. Now that he has, the story is about him, and like Blagojevich, he is not likely to survive it.