Thursday, December 14, 2006

Democratic Sen. Tim Johnson suffered some sort of medical emergency this afternoon; no word on what it was (a spokesman has denied that it was a stroke, as was widely reported earlier), but as of about 5:30 this morning, he was still in surgery.

The big-picture potential for this, of course, is the Democratic majority: if Johnson's incapable of serving come January, the Republican governor of South Dakota can appoint any replacement he likes; the appointment of a Republican would could give control of the Senate back to the Republicans.

When I first saw the stories this afternoon, my gut reaction to the Democratic-majority talk was discomfort: the man's suffered some sort of medical calamity, his life may be in danger, and within the first three sentences of every story is a mention of the fact that his incapacitation could hurt the balance of the Senate? But - as one might conclude from the fact that I'm writing about it now - I got over that. I wish him well, and I hope he gets better, in the same way that I'd hope that anyone who suffered a medical calamity got better (even a Republican).1 But I think I'll be pulling for Johnson a bit harder than I'd be pulling for most other people. Because while his incapacitation (or worse) would be terrible for him and his family, it has the potential to be disastrous for the Democratic party.

Now, granted, even in the event of Republican control of the Senate, we're probably not talking catastrophe: the House would remain a solid buffer to GOP malfeasance. But the Senate, all by itself, has the potential to do serious harm (anyone else fake-coughing Sam Alito's name right now?). Suppose, God forbid, that John Paul Stevens suffered some sort of medical disaster. The difference between that happening while the Senate is controlled by the Democrats and that happening while the Senate is controlled by the Republicans could be the difference between Antonin Scalia and Anthony Kennedy (or, perish the thought, David Souter).

There's a good chance that won't become an issue, of course. And there's even a very good chance that the Senate could spend the next two years as a Republican body and not have all too negative a net effect. But the potential exists that a Republican Senate could have a drastically negative effect. And for that reason, the fact that Tim Johnson's hospitalization could jeopardize the Democratic majority is probably bigger news, in the long run, than the fact of Tim Johnson's hospitalization all by itself. Hence this post.

Sorry, Senator. Get well soon.

1 - Okay, most Republicans.

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