The broken power broker


Whither, Rahm Emanuel? Once upon a time, for those old enough to remember the days of Clintonite and Democratic Leadership Council power politics during the 1990s, or even the Bush-era 2000s and the early days of the Obama administration, there were few people more feared, respected, admired, and loathed in equal measure than Rahm Emanuel. He may not quite have been Robert Moses, but in terms of national Democratic politics, he was truly one of the sparingly small group of people who could be genuinely called a “power broker.” DCCC campaign director. Chief fundraiser for Chicago Mayor Richard Daley. Director of Bill Clinton’s campaign finance committee. White House strategist. Congressman. Chief of staff to President Barack Obama. Mayor of Chicago. The resume reads like a cursus honorum of Democratic politics over the past 30 years.

In 2020? His power is broken. A trial balloon floated by the incoming Biden administration about a potential appointment as secretary of transportation was greeted with such white-hot fury from a host of Democratic and left-wing activists that it burst almost immediately and led to the amusing spectacle of Pete Buttigieg, small-town Indiana mayor, getting the nomination instead, claiming his love of airports and his fondness for bike lanes as proper qualifications for the job.

The Biden administration properly grasped the correlation of forces. Rahm was simply too divisive within the Democratic coalition to try and push through, whatever his qualifications. Why? How has the mighty been laid so low?

To understand truly why, this is a story best told in reverse, for as the center of gravity of the Democratic Party has shifted to the left, the retrospective grievances against Emanuel from the distant past have accumulated forward like a strange rerun of Christopher Nolan’s Tenet. Deeds that were acceptable, even praiseworthy, in the past have now become damning sins in the eyes of his long-suffering opponents.

In October 2014, a black teenager identified as Laquan McDonald was spotted in one of Chicago’s more crime-prone neighborhoods attempting to break into parked cars late one night. Car break-ins are not an uncommon occurrence in the Lawndale part of Chicago, but what was uncommon was the subsequent response. Chicago police were notified, began to follow him, and eventually demanded that he stop and surrender — whereupon a police officer arriving late on the scene pulled up in a cruiser, stepped out of his vehicle, and promptly unloaded 16 bullets into McDonald as he was walking away, killing him.

In the present day, such tragedies have become, justifiably so, fodder for intense social media outrage. But what made the McDonald shooting different is that nobody was around to take a video recording of the incident and put it up on Twitter or Instagram. Nobody except the police officers themselves, that is, with their car dashboard cameras. And this is where Emanuel, mayor of Chicago, got himself into hot water. The police report claimed that McDonald had “lunged” at an officer, justifying his shooting. City Hall — in Chicago, the mayor is functionally a stand-in for City Hall — was aware by at least early 2015 that this was a lie, because it had gotten hold of the dashcam footage. The city immediately entered into negotiations with the McDonald family, and the day after Emanuel secured reelection, the City Council approved a $5 million settlement. The video remained under wraps, however, (and the officer who shot McDonald was not charged with any crime) until a Freedom of Information Act request finally brought the recordings to light seven months later. The immediate assumption among Emanuel’s critics was that the mayor or his staff had ordered a cover-up of the police camera footage and had the city offer a hush-money payout to the McDonald family in order to prevent the scandal from emerging prior to his election and potentially tanking his prospects.

The real question is why Rahm Emanuel, incumbent Democratic mayor of one of America’s most Democratic cities, would have had to worry about his reelection in the first place.

Emanuel won in 2011 as an outsider to the nitty-gritty of city politics, something historically unprecedented for a Chicago mayoral candidate. Yes, Emanuel had represented the city’s North Side in Congress for three terms, but aside from an early stint as chief fundraiser for Richard M. Daley’s 1989 mayoral campaign, he was seen much more as a creature of Washington than of Chicago’s extremely insular political scene. Even at the time, there was a certain amount of grumbling from aldermen and longtime pols that Emanuel was parachuting into the job as a “celebrity candidate,” trading on the goodwill he had acquired from his work as chief of staff of the Obama White House. He won 55% of the vote in a six-way race, nonetheless.

Rahm had the misfortune to take office as the city was in the throes of both a financial and public-safety crisis, both of which Chicago is still dealing with. In a city where political power is built not just upon raw power but also on personal relationships, Emanuel’s outsider status was amplified by his legendarily abrasive demeanor. When he took up the task of limiting the city’s future pension liabilities to shore up a disastrous $8 billion public-pension shortfall, he alienated city government workers. Then, failed contract negotiations with the teachers union led to a citywide strike. An effort to close failing schools succeeded only in enraging the unions and the minority communities where those schools were located. And the crime wave continued unabated.

Emanuel was therefore heading into his reelection campaign with an approval rating that could charitably be pegged in the mid-30s. Due to luck or backroom maneuvering, Emanuel failed to draw a serious challenger. Yet, against four political nonentities, he still received only an anemic 45.6% of the vote in the first round of the race. It is in this context that the suppression of the explosive McDonald shooting video must be understood: a mayor fighting desperately to retain office, with the very real possibility that even an unserious candidate could knock him off in the April runoff should racial tensions be inflamed by an inconvenient news story about suppressed police brutality.

In any event, Emanuel won the April 2015 runoff. But his luck ran out permanently when the tape was finally made public in November of that year. Emanuel’s approval rating cratered; throwing the police commissioner under the bus and appointing the standard “blue-ribbon committee” did nothing to help matters, and his style of governance was so discredited that his spiritual successor, Bill Daley, brother of Richard M., son of Richard J., and Rahm’s successor as Obama’s chief of staff, failed to make even the runoff for the 2019 mayoral race.

* * *

When Rahm’s name was first floated by the Biden transition team as a potential secretary of transportation, the reaction from the Chicago pols and activists he had antagonized during his mayoral tenure was immediate. What was more telling was the reaction of left-wing Democrats with national profiles such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who carry immense influence with the far-Left base of the national party and attract an immense amount of news coverage due to their social media presence. Almost immediately after word of Rahm’s consideration for a Cabinet position was floated, Ocasio-Cortez took to Twitter to ask: “What is so hard to understand about this? Rahm Emanuel helped cover up the murder of Laquan McDonald. Covering up a murder is disqualifying for public leadership.” An immediate spate of news articles was written about Emanuel’s outright unacceptability to the progressive base as a Biden appointee.

It would be uncharitable to doubt the sincerity of Ocasio-Cortez and her progressive ilk in their disgust for the police cover-up of McDonald’s shooting. It was, after all, a deeply cynical act. However, their opposition was overdetermined, as they say. For the Left's loathing of Emanuel is the fruit of long-standing grudges that progressives hold against the more moderate (or even simply mainstream liberal) wing of the Democratic Party. To them, Emanuel epitomizes all of the worst centrist failures of the party during the Clinton, Bush, and Obama years. And that is a story that takes us back to a time before Emanuel’s mayoral tenure, to his years as a core member of the Clinton machine during the ‘90s and as Obama’s chief of staff during the first two years of his term.

It was extremely telling that when the Laquan McDonald scandal broke, the article most circulated among liberals online was Rick Perlstein’s outright celebratory “good riddance” piece in the New Yorker, which appends a desultory and half-hearted chronicle of Emanuel’s missteps as mayor to a much more enthusiastic and angry denunciation of his track record prior to that. The article reaches all the way back to Emanuel’s days as a Clintonite, moving forward to the present and casting each one of his purported achievements as a betrayal of progressivism.

And it’s quite the doozy, a blueprint for countless rants one hears nowadays from the left wing of the party about the people they sneeringly call “neoliberals.” (The term has been emptied of meaning so much by those who use it as an epithet that it now has become an almost perfect analogue to the way “neoconservative” is hurled around as an insult.) In the Left's narrative, Rahm’s prowess as a Clinton-era fundraiser, once one of his most highly touted calling cards, is recast as an abandonment of capital-D Democratic principles of governance for the pursuit of Mammon. The major legislative achievements of the Clinton era that Emanuel helped pass, the ones that secured the president’s popularity and reelection, are now the cruelest betrayals of the Democratic Party: NAFTA, the 1994 crime bill, border security, etc.

Most bizarrely, his chairmanship of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee during the latter half of the Bush years is now spun as a terrible mistake: Writing from the vantage point of late 2015, Perlstein lamented that Rahm’s skill in helping the Democrats reclaim the House of Representatives in 2006 was actually somehow a net negative for the party in the long run. The objection? Emanuel was more concerned with recruiting candidates who could win in conservative-leaning or moderate districts, to build a majority, than with supporting progressive ideologues. The criticism is risible for multiple reasons, not the least of which being that without that House majority, neither the stimulus bill nor Obamacare, Barack Obama’s sole legislative achievement during his eight years in office, would have ever been passed.

What becomes obvious from pieces such as these and others, as well as the repeated complaints of commentators and activists on social media, is that Emanuel is hated nearly as much for being the near-perfect embodiment of an era when the Left felt marginalized within the Democratic Party as he is for his own failings. It’s not a new story either: See the McGovernite revolt of 1972 or the Tea Party and Trumpist revolts within the GOP more recently.

This is a fundamentally Oedipal conflict, really, a story of a younger and usually more radical generation of activists boiling over with frustration against the perceived errors of their elders. And it has been brewing for decades, to wit, their barely sublimated rage against geriatric political leaders such as Nancy Pelosi, Steny Hoyer, James Clyburn, and Chuck Schumer for monopolizing power within their legislative caucuses. The difference is that left-wing Democrats now have enough sway within both the party apparatus and the media to flex their muscles and take their frustrations out upon the occasional target. And that is what Rahm Emanuel became to them after his power was broken by the McDonald scandal: a convenient scapegoat for most every evil or error the “establishment” had committed during the years before the present progressive efflorescence.

President-elect Biden has to govern a coalition every bit as rickety as the one Republican leaders have been dealing with on their side of the aisle since 2010: white gentry progressives, younger, more liberal voters and activists, minority groups, and older, legacy Democrats. In that situation, Rahm Emanuel, as a Cabinet official subject to a brutal confirmation hearing, is just a risk he no longer can afford to take. Perhaps there is a chance that Biden will give him a nonconfirmable position. But for now, Emanuel sits on the outside looking in, his power broken by the shifting ground of his own party underneath his feet.

Jeffrey Blehar is an attorney, elections analyst, and the host of Political Beats at National Review . He lives in Chicago.

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