Politics

Elbow Rahm

By From the December 2008 - January 2009 issue

BARACK OBAMA HAS APPOINTED Chicago congressman Rahm Emanuel as his new White House chief of staff. Emanuel, a bruising partisan street fighter, has the kind of blunt- talking tough-guy persona that Obama clearly doesn’t possess but would like to call on in his relations with Congress. Emanuel is also a political brain of the highest order, having orchestrated much of the machinery with which Democrats took back the House in 2006. It’s as if Obama had picked a liberal counterpoint combination of Al D’Amato and Karl Rove to run his White House.

Emanuel is nothing if not driven. He calls himself a “Vince Lombardi Democrat,” because he shares with the late Green Bay Packers coach the belief that “winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.” Emanuel’s life has been a testimony to that philosophy. He started out as an aide to Tony Coelho, a notoriously aggressive Democratic House majority whip in the 1980s who pioneered the kind of squeeze plays on businesses designed to get them to pony up campaign contributions that are now routine in politics. Emanuel then became a political advisor to Bill Clinton. He made his mark by advising then Gov. Clinton in 1991 to forgo campaigning in New Hampshire and instead embark on an ambitious national fundraising tour. The tour raised enough funds to bankroll the Clinton campaign’s ad blitzes necessary to fend off character attacks later on.

In the Clinton White House, Emanuel was a key communications advisor and also a strong supporter of the first HillaryCare. But he really came into his own after leaving the Clinton White House. Following a brief, but highly lucrative career as an investment banker in Chicago, he was elected to Congress in 2002 and quickly rose through the ranks. In 2006, he became chairman of the Democratic House campaign committee and chief architect of the party’s campaign strategy that year. He recruited many of the insurgent challengers who knocked off Republicans with rhetoric that shied away from the ultra-liberal themes of past Democrats. Syndicated columnist George Will paid him a supreme compliment after the 2006 election when he wrote:

The Democratic Party, a slow learner but educable, has dropped the subject of gun control and welcomed candidates opposed to parts or even all of the abortion rights agenda. This vindicates the candidate recruitment by Rep. Rahm Emanuel and Sen. Chuck Schumer, chairmen of the Democratic House and Senate campaign committees, respectively. Karl Rove fancies himself a second iteration of Mark Hanna, architect of the Republican ascendancy secured by William McKinley’s 1896 election. In Emanuel, Democrats may have found another Jim Farley, the political mechanic who kept FDR’s potentially discordant coalition running smoothly through the 1930s.

 To make a more recent comparison, the Obama White House is likely to take on some of the look and feel of the Clinton White House and the political “war room” that Dick Morris ran in the mid-1990s. Indeed, Emanuel’s appointment may be an olive branch extended to the Clinton forces. During the primaries this year, Emanuel maintained neutrality during the long battle between Obama, who hails from his own political base of Chicago, and Hillary Clinton, with whom he has long enjoyed good personal ties.

The longer Obama is a candidate, the more he has seemed to appreciate the Clinton approach. If this is the “change” Obama has in mind, voters may be surprised how much it turns out to be an updated edition of the last Democratic White House.

But it may well take a different approach to the Democratic Congress than Bill Clinton took. Obama obviously has thought carefully about mistakes made by previous Democratic presidential winners who wrongly believed a Congress controlled by their own party would help make them a success.

POLLSTER DOUG SCHOEN, who helped Bill Clinton win reelection in 1996 in the face of overwhelming odds after the 1994 Democratic debacle, recently warned in a Wall Street Journal op-ed: “If the Democrats govern as if there is no Republican Party, they are likely headed to the kind of reaction that Bill Clinton faced when he made the same misjudgment after the 1992 election victory.” Schoen cited specifically a meeting in Little Rock after the election with Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell and House Speaker Tom Foley, when Clinton agreed to defer to Congress on key elements of his legislative agenda. The subsequent lurch to the left did incalculable damage to his presidency.

That may be one reason why Obama has chosen Emanuel, who has a reputation for hyper-aggressiveness but has also exhibited impatience with left-wing members of his party who have overly ambitious ideological agendas. A likely first assignment for Emanuel will be reminding House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid that, after only two years of Democratic control, Congress already has a lower approval rating than even President Bush’s.

In an interview with the Israeli newspaper Ma’ariv, Emanuel’s father, Dr. Benjamin Emanuel, also gave a hint of how Obama’s pick may repair strained relations with some Jewish Americans worried about Obama’s past cozy ties with pro-Palestinian academics. Dr. Emanuel said he was convinced his son’s appointment would be good for Israel. “Obviously he will influence the president to be pro-Israel,” he told Ma’ariv. “Why wouldn’t he be? What is he, an Arab?”

To the extent Obama becomes a successful president, it will be because he remains his own man and trusts the brilliant political instincts that have gotten him this far, this fast. Look not just for a presidential weekly radio address but a weekly YouTube video. Also look for him to use Emanuel to knock heads together and make sure every Democrat possible is following the Obama agenda and not one of his or her own devising.

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About the Author

John H. Fund is a senior editor of The American Spectator and author of the Stealing Elections (Encounter Books).