Which is more likely to happen first: former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D) goes to jail or Sen. Roland Burris, D-Ill., is forced to resign? It's an increasingly complicated question, and one that President Obama may not be able to ignore much longer.
Senate Democrats may have received a blessing in disguise from Burris, who recently acknowledged that he was hit up for campaign cash by Blagojevich's brother before becoming Blago's Senate pick. On Tuesday, he admitted that he tried to raise money for the ousted governor. Burris failed to disclose either of those tidbits when testifying last month, under oath, before the Illinois House impeachment panel.
Now, this much is clear -- Burris is about as likely to leave the Senate quietly as he is to decide he'd rather be cremated. During a rambling press conference Sunday, he said he has "nothing to hide" and, just like his benefactor Blago, made clear he'll fight to hold his seat. But Democrats in Illinois and Washington smell blood and, after a month of hand-wringing over how to handle the situation, are increasingly likely to encourage other candidates to enter the state's 2010 primary. The reason: Burris can't win. The top contender: state Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias (D), an Obama cohort on and off the basketball court (on the court, the word is, Giannoulias usually wins).
Giannoulias is talking to top Democrats in preparation for a possible Senate run. But so far he has kept a relatively low profile in Washington, and sources say he won't announce his plans any time soon. Other possible Democratic candidates include Rep. Jan Schakowsky, Rep. Danny Davis and state Attorney General Lisa Madigan. Waiting in the wings is five-term Rep. Mark Kirk, a moderate Republican from Chicago's north suburbs and potentially a strong contender for the seat.
But the Burris imbroglio raises other interesting questions -- not just about Burris, but about Obama. Should he wade back into the murky world of Illinois politics? There are at least two schools of thought.
Some folks say he should. Since his election last November, Obama has studiously avoided campaign-style politics, choosing instead to hoard his large reservoir of political capital for the even larger challenges, foreign and domestic, staring down his young administration. In post-election runoffs, he declined to stump for Democratic Senate nominee Jim Martin in Georgia and let Rep. Don Cazayoux (D) fall in Louisiana. This year, he's unlikely to dirty his hands pushing his party's uphill bid to replace new Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D) in an upstate New York House district that he narrowly carried.
His rationale made sense: His ability to push Democrats over the finish line, in those specific races, appeared to be limited. But if there's one group of voters with whom Obama should hold powerful sway, it's Democrats in Illinois. If he wants someone to primary Burris, he can convince him or her to do so. If he wants voters to back someone over Burris, he need only say the word. Obama would likely be particularly influential among African-Americans, who comprise Burris' strongest base of support.
Pushing out Burris could help Obama erase an embarrassing stain from his home-state party, one that threatens its hold on the Senate seat and governor's office in 2010. It also would help Obama put an end to one of the many nuisances that have plagued the early days of his presidency.
This is part of what modern presidents do, right? When their popularity was riding high, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush strategically waded into key primaries to muscle out weak candidates and bolster strong ones. By continuing to avoid the rough-and-tumble of campaign politics, Obama could alienate Democratic partisans who expect him to expend his capital to further solidify the party's dominance.
Then again, neither Clinton nor Bush ever took sides in primaries against incumbents from their parties. And some people believe Obama would be well advised to avoid doing so as well.
Most importantly, Obama might not need to. Burris may soon be indicted on perjury charges, he has little base of support outside Chicago and it's difficult to see how he'll raise the money he'll need to compete statewide. And after initially saying Burris shouldn't be seated because of his ties to Blagojevich, Obama has effectively avoided the melodrama, which has served him and his agenda well.
Ultimately, the entire episode might be better handled quietly by Obama's political team. Maybe the president could task his chief of staff, fellow Chicagoan Rahm Emanuel, to embark upon a delicate series of private talks and, tapping his well-honed subtlety, gently push Burris into retirement.
That's also about as likely as Burris' cremation.