Madigan's memo signals gathering storm

Dan Proft Jun. 15, 2008, 5:16am

There is a reason Mike Madigan has been Illinois House Speaker for 24 of the past 26 years (the exception being the hiccup of the Gingrich Revolution year of 1994 which Madigan quickly rectified in 1996).

He has a shrewd political mind. He is not given to reckless behavior or careless, emotional excess. He demands and receives loyalty. And he is patient, plotting in the present for a payoff he anticipates years down the road.

These qualities explain Madigan's success in methodically converting Republican legislative seats in suburban Cook County and the collar counties into Democrat ones.

So it is with this understanding of Madigan that I read his memo detailing everything Governor Rod Blagojevich is alleged to have done wrong since his haircut was age-appropriate.

To be fair, Madigan spokesman Steve Brown did tell the AP that the memo was not the viewpoint of Madigan or the caucus position of the House Democrats but simply research for candidates who are interested in talking to voters about impeachment.

Well, golly gee, what harm could there be in that?

I had erroneously conjured Madigan into some sort of calculating, Hobbesian tactician interested in publicly disemboweling the Governor, when it turns out he's just a wonkish law librarian. You can imagine my embarrassment.

I found the tugging of the hook piercing my lower lip a bit unnerving, so I cut through Steve Brown's lines and began nibbling on Madigan's.

Madigan's Simon Says memo to Democrat legislative candidates is a mixture of petty nonsense that does not come close to rising to the level of impeachable offenses and legitimate questions about dubious actions taken by the Governor in apparent contravention of state constitutional and statutory law.

Madigan summarizes his less than charitable review, concluding simply that "Governor Blagojevich's inability to govern is the principal reason that the state is in its current predicament and that stalemate is the order of the day in Springfield."

Madigan's edict attributes the conviction of five administration officials on federal corruption charges as having done irreparable damage to the Governor. Interestingly, when five dozen officials from the George Ryan regime were similarly convicted, Madigan offered no such declarations.

Why the public hand-wringing from the Speaker this time around?

In part, Madigan and Blagojevich have a clear personality conflict, being that Madigan has one.

But the memo is evidence of more than that. Madigan is essentially telling Democrats that even as they currently enjoy the run of the place in Illinois, their political future is nonetheless precarious.

Despite its explicit appeals to good government and discernible policy change, Madigan's memo is not an expression of true interest in either. Rather, it is strictly a commentary on political survival.

Madigan understands that George Ryan did to the GOP what the Democrats could not do--Ryan destroyed the party from within. Going into the 1996 election, Republicans held every constitutional office in Illinois and controlled both chambers of the General Assembly. Ten years later, it was all gone and Republicans are still today trying to regain their relevance.

As usual, Madigan sees what others do not. He sees the gathering storm. Madigan remembers how the silence of GOP officeholders during the George Ryan years led to their ultimate undoing.

Those cautionary tales raised the bar as to the required standard of conduct. Speaking out is no longer enough.

So as to localize the political damage from Blagojevich's inevitable demise, Madigan must be able to claim that it was newly-minted "reform Democrats" like his daughter (whose name is verboten from public speech so sayeth the memo) that drove the unpopular governor from office.

Madigan has made his career by saving Illinois Democrats from themselves but even he has work cut out for him this time.

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