Why the left could not destroy Rahm Emanuel

At a time when police violence against people of color became a national emergency, Emanuel left office drenched in anger at the way he and the city government handled one of the country’s most notorious episodes, the murder of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald, who was hit by 16 bullets as he walked away from an officer.

At a time when the left is widely touted for its newfound power, Biden has ignored warnings from rising stars like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez about someone they believe embodies the Democratic Party’s issues. Instead, he appointed Emanuel to represent the country to a major world power – a post historically given to figures as esteemed as Caroline Kennedy, former Vice President Walter Mondale and former Majority Leader. in Senate Mike Mansfield.

Emanuel’s survival is more than luck. It comes from more than good relationships, although those obviously help.

This stems from certain distinguishing factors that illuminate important dynamics in contemporary politics – why many politicians see their careers torn apart by controversy, while a much smaller number manage to transcend efforts to destroy them and thrive for long years. .

There are three lessons any politician – even those who hate Emanuel and the brand of Democratic centrism he represents – could use to their advantage.

Lesson 1: Don’t be fooled by the clue

A more conventional politician with the scar tissue of Emanuel might have decided that a major appointment in the Biden administration was asking for trouble. Simply put, his willingness to be in the action is unconventional. Neither did his pain tolerance.

Two other politicians help illustrate this point.

Al Franken has resigned as US Senator from Minnesota. He did so reluctantly and came to regret his choice quickly. But when he was accused of sexual harassment in December 2017 and was skinned by fellow Democrats like Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (DN.Y.), he felt he had no choice.

But he had a choice. Look at Virginia Governor Ralph Northam, who just completed his full term in the New Year. He did so in a wave of generally favorable media coverage of his record on racial reconciliation. Much of it came from media thundering for his resignation three years ago after revelations in a 1984 yearbook photo of a man who appeared to be wearing him a black face. Northam had apparently been on the verge of acquiescing to the calls when he left before deciding at the last moment to stay put. During a television appearance, Emanuel had urged him not to quit, a clip Northam saw. He called Emanuel to thank him.

It turns out that part of political power boils down to psychology. Having the brass to ignore public or private censorship may or may not be a positive trait as an individual. But in an age of growing political and media ferocity, it can be an indispensable part of political character. Most people just aren’t wired that way.

Emanuel was, at a young age. In 1993, when Emanuel was former President Bill Clinton’s first White House political director, his brash style won him the disapproval of First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton. She wanted him to go. White House Chief of Staff Mack McLarty arrived with a not-so-subtle suggestion that Emmanuel might be happier on the Democratic National Committee. Emanuel has said he is not leaving the White House unless Bill Clinton himself told him – knowing the conflict-averse president was unlikely to force the issue. Within a few years, Emanuel had once again become one of Clinton’s most important collaborators.

Disavowing a smart consensus about whether you are on top or bottom, or what one is “supposed to do” in response to setbacks, is easier for someone like former President Donald Trump, all of whom do. the appeal is based on contempt for establishment piety. It’s harder for someone like Emanuel – or Clinton or former President Barack Obama – whose entire career has been to navigate the establishment and win their first awards. Yet, it’s precisely this kind of monomania to stay alive and in the arena that allows Emanuel to seek out and win a high-profile date with Biden, even with all the scar tissue he’s racked up.

Lesson 2: Keep the soul of a hack

Emanuel started out as an agent, as a fundraiser and campaign agent for the Congressional Democratic campaign committee. In his rise after the Clinton years – as an investment banker, congressman, Obama’s chief of staff in the White House, then mayor – it would have been perfectly natural for him to think, “I won the right to stop scrambling and act with the dignity and distance of a manager.

What Emanuel does know is that in modern political culture, agents – who are close to gossip, the evolving media narrative, who tries to stab who – often have more real power than the mainstream. It’s the same thing an agent-turned-director of another generation, James Baker, understood. Even after becoming Secretary of the Treasury and Secretary of State, he never stopped working in Washington and working on history.

Who rings on my cell phone on a Sunday morning? Oh, it’s Rahm. I go out for a walk with the dogs, should I take it? Sure why not. What does he have in mind? Usually a question is, have I seen an article or conceptual argument that he has about how Democrats blow on this or have a big chance to win on that. He’s smart, he’s funny, he’s insightful in his assessments of his political colleagues. Quite quickly, he was gone, on the next call.

I like the exchanges, but I have no illusions about the fact that I am in an exclusive group. How many people are receiving these calls? I’m sure there are several dozen. (“I was talking to Daschle…” “Carville was saying the same thing as you but Paul doesn’t agree…”) I know several journalists who understand them.

Perhaps this proves that we are all swamp creatures as well. But, just for practical reasons, the operational mindset is essential to how Emanuel wields power. That’s why he made common cause with Biden in the Obama White House. That’s why Chief of Staff and colleague Ron Klain (who can be seen as he was 30 years ago with Emanuel in The war room, the Clinton ’92 campaign documentary) believed he had to find a cool job for Emanuel even after the original idea for Secretary of Transportation did not come along. That’s why several key members of the Chicago City Council Black Caucus, along with New Jersey Senator Cory Booker, backed Emanuel’s appointment as ambassador, preventing the vote from becoming a racial litmus test.

An aside: given how worried politicians are about media coverage – craving more, but also lamenting what they get – it’s surprising how few have mastered the relatively easy art of working with it. the media. There is nothing that Emanuel does that cannot be done by an ambitious politician on the left or on the right. He already works in Japanese media.

Lesson Three: Governance Matters

I know Emanuel well enough to know how like and different he is from most other politicians. I know him too well to be the good reporter to appreciate his bottom line.

If you want a tale of why a lot of people see him as a deplorable character, there’s a decent one here and another with a list of indictments here.

Yet as for the anger he arouses on the left, it is striking to me that over the nearly three decades that I have covered Emanuel, the mythology surrounding him has grown from a reputation for enraged Democrat supporter with a repulsive Democrat reputation. apologist – an appeaser of business and conservatives, who is not at all a progressive.

Followers of the latter view will not be surprised that Emanuel’s 48-21 confirmation in the Senate – 31 senators did not vote – came with the backing of Republicans such as the senses Roy Blunt of Missouri and Rob Portman. from Ohio.

This is not a taunt aimed at those on the left who see Emanuel as a Democrat in name only, but simply a statement of practical fact, that his hands have been intimately tied to more concrete progressive achievements than most of his left-wing opponents. These include the CHIP health program for children from low-income families, which Emmanuel negotiated on behalf of Clinton in 1997. It includes a key role in helping Democrats win the House in 2006, which has raised Nancy Pelosi to the presidency. This included expanding preschool education in struggling Chicago public schools, an increase in the minimum wage, and a subsidized community college during his tenure as mayor.

The Democratic debate on the right balance between pragmatism and ideology is likely to intensify in the years to come. It seems likely that Emanuel’s attraction to the tactile work of government and the connections he established in that work was one of the reasons he’s still on stage when so many wanted to chase him away.


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