How Rahm Emanuel Won The Day

rhambo.jpgNaftali Bendavid from the Chicago Tribune followed DCCC Chairman, Congressman Rahm Emanuel, for a year as the Democrat plotted and ultimately won the US House of Representatives. And he did it by remaking the party in his own image.

Democrats had never raised enough money. Emanuel, a savvy fundraiser who shaped those skills under Richard M. Daley and Bill Clinton, yelled at colleagues and threatened his candidates into generating an unprecedented amount of campaign cash.

Democrats had a history of appeasing party constituencies. Emanuel tore up the old litmus tests on abortion, gun control and other issues. With techniques that would make a Big Ten football coach blush, he recruited candidates who could mount tough challenges in some of the reddest patches of America.

Democrats had blanched at hardball. Emanuel, jokingly called “Rahmbo” even by his mother, muscled weaker Democrats out of races in favor of stronger ones, and ridiculed the chairman of his own party.

The Republicans always had killers on their side, ruthless closers like Karl Rove, Tom DeLay and Lee Atwater, the late mudslinging mastermind credited with getting the first President Bush elected.

In Emanuel, Democrats had their counterpart, a tactician of a caliber the party had not seen since the young Lyndon Johnson converted the DCCC into a power base.

Emanuel’s strategy was to keep the opposition uncomfortable. If a Republican congressman took a vote that he hoped no one in his district would notice, such as supporting a Bush budget cut, Emanuel immediately issued a press release and sent it to the Republican’s hometown newspaper. He then sent it to the lawmaker’s office to, as he said, “fuck with their heads.”

He had the DCCC designate one Republican as the “rubber stamp of the week” and another as the “crony of the week,” a gimmick that generated a surprising amount of local coverage. Republicans who received money from drugmakers or oil companies were ridiculed as lackeys of special interests.

…and the Democrats who didn’t share his vision? Steamrolled in much the same way…

On a late-spring day in 2006, Emanuel and Charles Schumer, the New Yorker in charge of winning the Senate for the Democrats, walked into the office of party Chairman Howard Dean.

Emanuel, once again, was ready for a fight.

For months, Emanuel and Schumer had been imploring the iconoclastic former presidential candidate to channel more money into congressional campaigns. Dean had been pushing a “50-state strategy” to build a Democratic operation in every corner of the country.

The national party usually spent millions to help House candidates, but Dean was instead using the money to build this far-flung operation, to Emanuel’s immense frustration. He felt Dean’s strategy wasted money in unwinnable places.

According to Emanuel, the meeting devolved into a confrontation over resources. Emanuel said that the Republicans planned to heavily fund key races and that if Dean refused to do the same, it would amount to unilateral disarmament. Dean replied that he was fielding activists in every corner of every state.

Ridiculing those efforts, Emanuel told Dean that he had seen no sign of such an effort. “I know your field plan. It doesn’t exist,” he recalled saying. “I’ve gone around the country with these races. I’ve seen your people. There’s no plan, Howard.”

The tongue-lashing was another example of how Emanuel took a sledgehammer to intraparty niceties, making plenty of enemies along the way.

The gravitational center of Democratic antagonism toward Emanuel was the Congressional Black Caucus. Many of the caucus’ 43 members complained that Emanuel had not hired enough African-American staffers. They also protested that when he harangued lawmakers to pay their DCCC dues, he did not recognize how hard it was for black politicians, many of whom represented poorer areas, to raise money. The protests often erupted into shouting matches. “If a person says, `Danny Davis, where are your dues?’ I may have a particular difficulty getting my dues that you don’t know about or you don’t relate to,” Rep. Danny Davis, the West Side Democrat, said last summer. “Rahm don’t take no prisoners.”

Emanuel was privately contemptuous of such complaints. He saw the Black Caucus as one more party faction, like conservative Democrats, that would rather complain than work. Asked about the number of black staffers at the DCCC–two African-Americans were on his senior staff of about 10 people–he waved his hand dismissively. “You know that every [DCCC] chairman has faced the same criticism?” he said. “OK. So I don’t give a shit,” he added, literally spitting.

Then he began ranting about his conservative party colleagues. “They hate me too, because I’m arrogant and pushy with them. . . . Because they’ve never, ever WORKED! NOBODY! NONE OF ‘EM!”

Little enraged Emanuel as much as a fellow Democrat who didn’t share his unrelenting drive to win. In January 2006, Rep. Alcee Hastings, a Florida Democrat, was quoted in a local newspaper speaking sympathetically of Republican Clay Shaw. Because of his longtime friendship with Shaw, Hastings pointedly declined to endorse Shaw’s Democratic challenger.

Hastings was a colorful figure. A former federal judge, he was removed from the bench by Congress in 1989 for corruption and perjury, only the sixth U.S. judge in history to suffer this fate. He took revenge by winning a seat in Congress. A forceful speaker, Hastings chastised Emanuel in a closed meeting of House Democrats for not recruiting more candidates.

“He’s great on lectures,” Emanuel said later. “Phenomenal lecturer. I’m getting a lecture on recruitment when A, you haven’t done a god damn thing, and B, we’ve got a [Republican] target and you’re out there kissing his ass in the press?”

“You’ve got to have a thirst for winning,” he said. “You know what our party thinks? `We’re good people with good ideas. That’s just enough, isn’t it?’ Being tough enough, mean enough and vicious enough is just not what they want. . . . They just want to be patted on the back for the noble effort. No.”

Emanuel was constantly on the phone to candidates–coaching, reassuring, tormenting. In an August call to candidate Joe Sestak of Pennsylvania, Emanuel promised that Bill Clinton would help him raise money. “Joe Sestak, this is your rabbi, Rahm,” he intoned playfully. “Clinton. I’m close to having him do an event for you in Philly. . . . Clinton will put his arm around you and say, `He’s my man.'”

In a fairly typical sign-off, he concluded another call to Sestak: “Don’t screw it up or . . . I’ll kill you. All right, I love you. Bye.”

He warned another Pennsylvania hopeful, Chris Carney, about negative ads the GOP was about to unleash. “They’re going to come after you,” Emanuel said. “You haven’t said anything stupid on the hustings, have you?

“Well, don’t waste your time with me. Go raise some more money.”



Here’s an interesting theory. Last Tuesday, the real winners were an as yet unformed third party – the centrist party. Chris Satullo writes: Tuesday was a huge win for America’s true majority party, one that sadly remains unorganized and underestimated: the party of the center. Republicans lost because they shunned the center, mistaking their base for the mainstream. Democrats won by courting the center, however grudgingly.

If the Democrats blow their new chance at providing a coherent vision for governing and protecting America – a fair bet – then this third party of the center might complete its long struggle to be born. I half hope it happens.

The iron rule of American politics is that third parties never win. They’re marginal. Could that be because they usually rise on the margins? Libertarians, Nader, Buchanan: all purists from the edge.

The Reform Party of 1992 was the only recent third party that sought to rally centrist Americans dismayed by the follies and encrusted corruptions of the Big Two. But its leader, Ross Perot, was too wacky…

… we’re trained to view centrist positions as the product of confusion or expedience, lack of clarity or lack of guts. It’s the middle as muddle; the center as house of waffles. Moderates can’t possibly be acting out of insight, conviction or conscience. They’re “triangulating,” selling out their beliefs for ambition’s sake.

This is poppycock. It bolsters a politics rife with false choices and partisan poison. In this landscape, the majority of Americans find few echoes of their commonsense values. Some tune out; others hang in there, dutifully choosing between unappetizing options.

Now, imagine a different shape: a circle. A circle is defined by its center point. That, I’d argue, is a better metaphor for how our nation’s citizens really think through issues. The center suddenly becomes the vital place, where gutsy thinking – a willingness to face reality, learn from mistakes and innovate – can often be found.

So what would a party of the center, freed from the stale thinking and papered-over hypocrisies of the Big Two, look like? more here (and it’s actually worth your valuable time)


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