The initial announcement of Senator Tim Johnson’s (D-SD) sudden incapacitation and emergency brain surgery struck political Washington like the proverbial bombshell.

And listening to the commentaries on television, hearing others describing the reaction of colleagues who were mingling at holiday parties last night, and eavesdropping on conversations of people on the commuter train this morning, it was quite clear that the first response of Washington-area residents to Johnson’s medical emergency was political.

Not concern that he will survive the surgery.

Not concern for his family’s well-being after the shock of a major medical emergency.

Not concern for his recovery–how complete it will be and how long that will take.

No, the first thoughts and the first words were political–what would happen if Johnson died or decided to resign. Rarely would the balance of power in the Senate be affected by a single vacancy, but it can make a great deal of difference when one party holds a one seat majority as do the Democrats after last month’s election.

Should Johnson’s seat become vacant, South Dakota’s Republican governor would appoint a successor to finish Johnson’s term in office. With a free hand as to the appointee’s political affiliation, the governor would probably select a Republican, thereby throwing the Senate into a 50-50 party split. This would tilt control of the Senate to the Republicans as the Senate’s presiding officer and “tie-breaking” vote is the Vice-President of the United States–Republican Dick Cheney.

Politically speaking, Johnson’s medical condition and his ability and willingness to continue in office will determine where power resides in the Senate to organize the calendar and agenda, to chair committees, to issue subpoenas, to conduct investigations, to challenge the Administration’s strategy, tactics, and budgeting for the continuing fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, etc. Call it Fate, Destiny, happenstance, divine intervention; should the seat become vacant and be filled by a Republican, the result will be to frustrate the voters’ decision last November to empower Senate Democrats.

With the political angle analyzed, pause a moment and consider what the nature of the reaction to Johnson’s medical emergency says about the U.S. public–or at least many who live and work in Washington. The deep fissures between the legislative and executive branches, the chasm between Republicans and Democrats, and the fragility of the nation’s political psyche are all reflected in the consternation that swept Senate Democrats and even some Republicans who resent being hostage to those whose only goal is to gain and retain political power at all costs.

But this may be too hard a judgment on Washingtonians. Perhaps characterizing as “political” the reaction of many to the news of Johnson’s medical emergency ignores the unspoken–indeed even the unconscious–concern that a Republican-controlled Senate could frustrate the anticipated “human agenda” that the Congress might enact if both Houses were controlled by the Democrats. (On the other hand, there are many who are beginning to wonder what a Democratic Congress actually will do about Iraq.)

Maybe it’s only in Washington that so much is concealed by political considerations. Maybe elsewhere or on subjects that affect large constituencies–such as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan–individuals are more direct. Unquestionably, undisguised emotions ran high in late 2001 as the U.S. and Northern Alliance fighters ousted the Taliban from power in Afghanistan. By the late autumn of 2003, however, the administration was forced to employ political and intelligence “spin” to gain enough support for its invasion of Iraq–including a plan to bring “democracy” to a people who had never experienced it.

Ironically, the U.S. public now faces the same political frustration felt by many Iraqis who see their hopes for change subverted by forces apparently beyond the individual’s and even society’s human control–unpredictable acts of terror in Iraq and unpredictable medical emergencies in the U.S.

Of course, the whole “problem” could disappear. President Bush could decide to withdraw troops from Iraq on a timeline. Or, the whole problem could be exacerbated. Bush could decide to send in more troops and increase the permanent size of the Army and the Marines to allow more interventions in more places simultaneously. This would undercut any multinational foreign policy initiative that actually considers and integrates the legitimate national interests of those nations whose support we need and seek in mitigating violence, reducing terror incidents, and encouraging sustainable development.

But maybe the Republican governor will appoint a Democrat should the seat become vacant. Maybe the seat will remain with Tim Johnson as he recovers his health. Maybe the programs for the foreign and domestic disempowered will not be stymied after all.

Maybe those here in Washington will relearn the lesson that we are first of all human beings with responsibilities to care for and be concerned about the well-being of each other as individuals as well as collectively–regardless of where we live in our neighborhoods, our nation, our world.


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