Durbin and Blagojevich: A He Said, He Said

November 21, 2008

A small back and forth today between Illinois Senator Dick Durbin and Governor Rod Blagojevich is a good window into the governor's decision about who to appoint to the senate. Senator Durbin said Blagojevich still isn't returning his calls to talk about possible replacements for President elect Barack Obama's senate seat. According to the state's senior senator, he placed a call to Blagojevich's office last week and still hasn't heard back. To be fair, the governor's office disputes that version of events, saying a call went out to Durbin last Friday, and the ball is in the senator's court. Regardless of who is technically "it" in the Durgojevich game of phone tag -- the dispute hit on a dynamic that's come to define Blagojevich's approach to governing. Whoever is right, the reality is that Blagojevich has not connected with Durbin about the appointment -- his state's senior senator, who also happens to be the number 2 in the chamber. (AP Photo/James A. Finley/2005) Politicians are usually reluctant to talk trash about each other -- especially in the presence of reporters. But if you talk to public officials about Blagojevich, they often talk disparagingly about the degree to which the governor operates in isolation. Among Democratic insiders talking about the pending senate appointment, this comes up a lot. I recently heard one prominent politician informally tell a group of reporters in a frustrated voice that the governor "doesn't talk to anybody!" The degree to which we're hearing complaints from elected officials about Blagojevich's failure to communicate would seem to be a sign of just how bad things are. If you ask people to place bets on what direction Blagojevich will go with the senate appointment, most people will tell you that they won't even get into that game. It's just that unpredictable. If I recall correctly, Rich Miller with the Capitol Fax Blog went so far as to say trying to predict Blagojevich's choice was a "waste of time." Part of what makes Blagojevich's decision process so complicated is this political isolation we got another taste of today. Here's why. If Blagojevich, as he says he does, plans to run for reelection in 2010, he has serious work to do. This fall, the Chicago Tribune pegged his approval rating at 13-percent. Not that long ago, another poll pegged him as the least popular governor in the country. The senate appointment is a real opportunity for Blagojevich to build some relationships, appeal to blocks of voters and breath new life into his image. Doing so, however, will require the governor to break with his style of isolation. In order to take full advantage of his enormous political opportunity, he will have to open himself to input from the most powerful Democrats in the state -- people with names like Durbin, Daley, Jones, Hynes and yes, maybe even Madigan (Obama is a given). He has to gauge their motivations, interests and preferences. A few Democratic insiders I've talked to predict Blagojevich will approach the senate appoint with an eye towards putting his personal stamp on it -- that he will look to make a choice that is uniquely his. They backed up this prediction by citing the governor's isolation, his tendency to shun input from others, and his record as governor, which is defined by this pattern. I would argue that in order for the governor to make some political hay and help himself with this appointment, he's going to have to break with that image, reach out, and make a decision that's about more than him. No matter who called who last, it sounds like Senator Durbin is waiting for a phone call.