The Rahm Emanuel Show

It was a very strange sight.  There in The Washington Post was an article by reporter Dana Milbank making a case that White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel’s excellent advice has been ignored by a naïve President Barack Obama and that Emanuel is the great unappreciated asset of a collapsing administration with a weak staff. Several other stories followed with the same theme, including a laudatory column by right-winger Jonah Goldberg in the Los Angeles Times, another article in the Post and yet another in The New York Times going off on the rest of the staff. While Milbank swore that Emanuel was not his source, it was obvious to anyone who knows how the Emanuel media network operates in Washington that the chief of staff’s “people” inspired this clumsy public relations blitz.

This at the moment when Obama was finally getting off the sidelines to throw every single chip into the pot, trying to lead congressional Democrats to their greatest legislative victory since Medicare in 1965.  With friends like this …

Not since Donald Regan hung up on first lady Nancy Reagan has a White House chief of staff (or his friends) demonstrated such disloyal and self-destructive behavior. 

Even David Broder, The Post’s defender of Washington conventional wisdom, who largely agrees with much of Emanuel’s view of the world, was appalled and said so in his column.

What makes the story more interesting, though, is how it illuminates the continuing evolution of the Democratic Party from a timid, reactive group of individuals to an actual governing party.

Emanuel and Obama are contemporaries and friends, but, despite their common roots in Chicago, they are very different. Emanuel served Bill Clinton in the White House, and in a party dominated by high-minded, thoughtful leaders, Emanuel was a breath of fresh air with his down-to-earth, aggressive and profane style. He had absorbed the Clinton cleverness, especially at ideological cross-dressing and minimalist policy: Stick close to the Republicans on sensitive issues like national security and win on a few progressive ones. It was a highly aggressive tactical approach to a basically defensive strategic program. It was well suited for Democrats who wanted to survive in a Republican-run world.

But by 2008, Emanuel’s skill at getting big donors to fork over money (shown in the successful Democratic effort to take back the House in 2006) became secondary to the record-breaking number of small donors who powered the Obama campaign. The words “Democratic base” began to mean something. Thousands of people flooded into Obama rallies. Folks traveled from blue states to contested states to walk precincts. People read everything they could get their hands on. It was electric.  It was Obama’s world. But it was not Emanuel’s world. It was not Hillary Clinton’s world.

Nevertheless, the victorious Obama people valued Emanuel’s unique skills at the insider’s game. In his book on the campaign, David Plouffe wrote that they saw Emanuel as the best person in the United States to lead the new White House team. 

The alliance was perfect: the intellectual Obama and the hard-as-nails chief of staff, the outsider with a vision of hope and the insider enforcer. Obama joked that when Emanuel lost a middle finger in an accident when he was younger, it “rendered him mute.” The choice showed Obama’s wisdom in recruiting a tough veteran of congressional battles in light of the struggles to come.

And, indeed, Emanuel was the right man to get the stimulus package through in early 2009. He worked the deals to get a few key Republicans on board, even at the cost of some good provisions. And the stimulus package has made a real difference in the economy.

But health care, as we by now know all too well, lost momentum — first, thanks to the dithering of Montana Democrat Max Baucus’ bipartisan Gang of Six, and then to the insider horse trading common among pols but distasteful to the electorate.

The result was that by the fall of 2009, polls were showing overwhelming energy among Republicans and a deeply depressed and immobilized Democratic base. Democrats lost key elections in Virginia and New Jersey, and then, shockingly, in Massachusetts.

As Democrats fight to salvage their agenda in the face of difficult midterm elections next fall, Obama is now doing what he needed to do all along — taking a strong leadership role with nervous Democrats from both the House and Senate, as well as with the liberal and conservative wings of the party. There is no going back. He can’t stand on the sidelines. He needs Democrats to get the work done and prove their value as voters compare to them to Republicans in total opposition. And Democrats need
Obama to succeed and to hold his team together at this moment of greatest peril and greatest hope.

And so the timing of Emanuel’s fit of pique (or, to be precise, the pique displayed by his friends and allies) is both odd and revealing. Things were fine when Obama followed Emanuel’s advice on the stimulus package, which was sound and led to success. But now Obama is turning away from Emanuel’s advice on health care (which we are told in these articles was to focus not on health care, but on jobs) and pushing into infinitely difficult territory. This is a moment when Obama and the Democrats could make history. This could be the defining vote of every member of Congress’ career.

Perhaps Emanuel just wants to leave the job and get back to Congress before his successor gets too comfortable in Emanuel’s former House seat — it’s well known that he has long dreamed of being the first Jewish speaker of the House. But I hope he will stay and live up to the challenge he took on. Emanuel should understand that Democrats need more than a repeat of the Clinton years. He is right about a lot of things, but the ones he isn’t right about are awfully important.

While a party that can’t reach out to Republicans will not succeed, a party that looks for Republicans to hide behind will fail. While a party that can’t keep its moderate and conservative members in the tent will not succeed, a party that lets that wing of the party block legislative victory will fail. While a party that can’t raise money and negotiate on Capitol Hill will not succeed, a party that abandons its newly won base will also surely fail.

If Obama keeps Emanuel on, let’s hope that he will guide this missile of a man in the right direction.

And, meanwhile, maybe Emanuel should tell his friends to stop helping him out.

Raphael J. Sonenshein is chair of the Division of Politics, Administration, and Justice at California State University, Fullerton.