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The questions that linger

What happened in the conversations with Blago?

Gubernatorial thuggery in Illinois won't prompt Americans to throw their shoes at Barack Obama (give George W. Bush credit, the guy has good reflexes), but the president-elect risks losing some political luster if he fails to speedily address nagging questions about the extent and nature of any conversations that his aides may have been conducted with the corrupt hustler who aimed to sell Obama's vacated Senate seat.

Last week, while responding at a news conference to questions about the Rod Blagojevich scandal, Obama stated: "What I want to do is gather all the facts about any staff contacts that I might – may have – that may have taken place between the transition office and the governor's office," and share these facts publicly, "over the next few days."

He made that promise on Thursday morning. At that point, he had already been silent for two days; the scandal had gone national on Tuesday morning, when Blagojevich was cuffed at home, on charges of conspiracy and soliciting bribes. This means that the Obama people have now declined for nearly a week to detail the extent and nature of their discussions with the governor about that vacant Senate seat.

Even if Obama is innocent of all wrongdoing – indeed, the federal complaint against Blagojevich offers zilch evidence of any Obama malfeasance – this six-day silence isn't doing him any good, at least on the perception front. Unless or until Obama supplies "all the facts about any staff contacts," his partisan opponents will seek to broadly tar him with the Blago brush, and the more vigilant members of the media will keep re-framing the key unanswered questions.

And here are some of the questions:

Which Obama emissaries spoke to Blago or the governor's people, and when? (Reportedly, Obama chief of staff Rahm Emanuel was one such emissary.) Did they hear Blago say anything that struck them as potentially illegal, such as his offering to name a particular person to the Senate seat in exchange for money or a new job? If so, did they ignore, abet, or resist his pitch? Did they encourage or discourage him? Did they report anything to the authorities?

One might also ask: If the Obama people have nothing to hide, then what's the hold up? On the other hand, it's understandable that they wouldn't want to respond too quickly. They don't want to say anything that might compromise an ongoing federal probe. They also want to ensure that whatever they tell us about the conversations with Blago will jibe with the conversations that have been wiretapped; after all, being nailed for contradictions would only feed the news frenzy. All these factors probably help to explain why the Obama people have been cautiously reticent thus far; indeed, it's entirely possible that in the end they will be perceived by most Americans as bystanders to Blago's delusional buffoonery.

Nevertheless, the longer Obama fails to detail those staff contacts, the more he risks picking up some of the Chicago taint that he probably assumed he had managed to escape. (At this point, I'll have to invoke the Godfather III line that I've been resisting since last Tuesday. From Michael Corleone: "Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.") And the longer Obama waits, the more he risks making his fellow Democrats nervous (Ed Rendell has already told Morning Joe on MSNBC that, for Obama, this should have been a one-day story).

And, naturally, the longer Obama waits, the more he provides fuel to a partisan GOP engine that has been running virtually on empty. The Republican National Committee this weekend began circulating a three-minute video entitled "Questions Remain," and the party's lust for new combat is arguably best articulated by longtime conservative operative Craig Shirley: "Now the task is left to what remains of the Republican Party to begin the process of rebuilding. A good place to start is to shed it own corrupt image by going after the corruption of the Chicago and the National Democrats, and if that leads all the way to President-elect Obama, then so be it…and shove it down their (bleeping) throats."

Now, of course, there's something slightly comical about hearing these demands for accountability from the GOP, which was mute and supine for eight years while its own president wreaked havoc at home and abroad, and which was finally held accountable and horse-whipped by the electorate just six weeks ago. Nor are there any indications that the electorate finds the Blagojevich scandal to be more important than the issues that are currently draining its savings; or that the landslide support for the president-elect has eroded in any significant way.

But his reticence on the Blago-imbrogilio won't benefit him forever. Nature abhors a vacuum - especially in a 24/7 partisan climate where an errant smell can quickly be conflated into an all-purpose stench.


Late-day update, from an Obama spokesman: