Thursday, December 14, 2006

The Democrats and the Johnson Health Crisis

Over at Newsweek online, Eleanor Clift has a timely analysis of the implications of South Dakota Senator Tim Johnson's brain hemmorage for Democratic prospects of taking majority control of the upper chamber in January:

The possibility that the Senate might yet remain in Republican hands is a godsend for President Bush. With his Iraq policy in shambles and the Joint Chiefs of Staff resisting a last call to arms, Bush must have been wondering whether the higher power he consulted before taking the country to war had abandoned him.

Word that South Dakota Sen. Tim Johnson had suffered a brain hemorrhage that could leave him unable to serve out his term has repercussions throughout the body politic. On a human level, everybody hopes and prays for Johnson’s recovery. But this is Washington, and with the Senate poised to do real damage to Bush and his war party, not everybody’s prayers will be answered.

Outside of his home state, most people don’t have a clear idea who Johnson is. A conservative Democrat, quiet and self-contained, he’s now the balance of power keeping the Senate in Democratic hands. For a time, he was the only member of Congress with a child in the military. His son served in Afghanistan and Iraq. Even so, he barely survived an assault on his party’s patriotism in 2002, winning re-election by only 537 votes. He occupies the late Sen. Paul Wellstone’s office on Capitol Hill, and there’s a picture of the two of them together in the reception area. They weren’t soulmates, but it was Johnson’s way of paying tribute to Wellstone, a radical progressive, who died in a plane crash in 2002.

Just as Wellstone’s untimely death cost the Democrats a key Senate seat, Johnson’s illness should inject a sense of urgency into the Democrats’ agenda. No one would have put the robust-looking Johnson on an endangered list. Democrats have plenty of octogenarians and septuagenarians to worry about making it through to the next election. A health crisis that strikes without warning is a reminder of the fragility of the Democratic majority. With the direction of U.S. policy for the next two years riding on Senate control, Democratic leaders can’t afford to sit around figuring out how to position the party for ’08. That doesn’t mean they have to overhaul Social Security, but they should do what’s doable. Don’t delay; raise the minimum wage and try to lock in whatever reform protections they can. Life is ephemeral, and so is control of the Senate.

Johnson was struck down just weeks before his 60th birthday, with no warning that he had a congenital condition known as arteriovenous malformation. He did not suffer a stroke, but the bleeding triggered by the malformation causes symptoms that resemble a stroke. He had surgery to remove the tangle of errant blood vessels and is described as recovering without complication. But it’s too soon to say how much damage he suffered. The brain is high-priced real estate, and he could be facing months of rehabilitation to regain his speech and mobility....

Under South Dakota rules, unless Johnson or a member of his family declares him incapacitated, he can continue to serve indefinitely. The precedence for this in the state goes back to 1969 when South Dakota Sen. Karl Mundt, a Republican, suffered a severe stroke. He never attended another session on Capitol Hill and the Republicans eventually stripped him of his committee assignments. But he remained in office for almost three more years to complete his term.

Frankly, I've never heard of Senator Johnson. While I wish him well, my first thought at reading the news last night was how one man's twist of fate was likely to save the GOP majority in the Senate. His illness would also diminish the historic implications of the 2006 midterms. Policy-wise, the slim electoral majority for the Senate would have left it difficult for the Democrats to ram through legislation in that body in the new Congress. Nevertheless, the Senate could remain in GOP hands if South Dakota Governor Mike Rounds, who's a Republican, names a fellow partisan as Johnson's replacement.

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