Also in Slate: Read John Dickerson’s article about what Democrats think when they hear the phrase “buck up.”
Every two or three days, the Obama administration tries out a line intended to shame liberals into voting. “Folks, wake up,” said President Obama last week. “Those who didn’t get everything they wanted,”said Vice President Biden this week, “it’s time to just buck up here.”
If the early leaks are right, the “professional left”—Press Secretary Robert Gibbs’s instantly immortal, probably accidental term—is about to get all the bucking-up it needs. Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, according to just about everybody, is probably leaving the White House this week to prove that Chicago can be governed by someone not named “Daley.” He is being treated to more of the rose-scented superlatives that followed him since he returned to politics in 2002, when he ran the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in 2006, and when he joined the Obama administration. “He began each day before the sun did,” said Jake Tapper of ABC News, reporting last night, “often by swimming a mile, and he was perhaps the hardest worker in the White House.”
This is the kind of stuff liberals are used to hearing about Emanuel. If it ever impressed them, it doesn’t anymore. After two years of Emanuel, they are convinced that he was a paper tiger, a hack who never missed a chance to weaken the progressive agenda and a man whose toughness never translated to big, meaningful victories over Republicans.
“I thought we’d get the guy who busted balls in the House,” says Markos Moulitsas, the founder of Daily Kos, one of many online salons of anti-Rahm sentiment. “Instead, we got a White House more obsessed with getting [Wyoming Republican Sen. Mike] Enzi aboard the health care reform plan than on passing the best possible legislation and doing whatever it took to make it happen.”
When was the last time that there was a perception gap between the media and the “netroots” on Rahm Emanuel? As far as the press is concerned, Emanuel is a political fixer who’s been proved right about the administration’s big goals. As far as the left is concerned, Emanuel was the reason the administration fumbled on those goals. Liberals clip and save stories in which Emanuel was the administration’s voice of compromise. He was ready to bargain with Blue Dog Democrats for a micro-health care bill after Scott Brown’s victory. He didn’t think the monster stimulus bill that Christina Romer wanted was politically viable—but thought a smaller, less effective stimulus was. (As one Democrat put it to me, Emanuel’s desire for a quick fix helped enforce the idea that “60 was the new 51” in the Senate—not all his fault, but a symbol of how much liberals are willing to blame him for.) As far as progressives were concerned, he was a Rasputin, a bearer of inevitable wrongness and weakness who kept leading the czar astray.
In retrospect—if we can be retrospective about something that’s supposedly going to happen on Friday—the professional left would have been dishonest if it didn’t blame Emanuel for the administration’s shortcomings. His reputation, before this job, was built on his record at the DCCC, when he presided over the 2006 conquest of the House and the capture of 30 Republican seats. His reputation, among progressives, was as the guy who took the credit that they and their paladin, DNC Chairman Howard Dean, truly deserved.
All of that is spelled out in Herding Donkeys, reporter Ari Berman’s new book about Dean’s stewardship of the DNC. The magazine profiles of Emanuel are the textbook history of the Democratic comeback; Berman’s book is the Howard Zinn version, the story of the people who were pushed out of the frame. In it, Emanuel is the foul-mouthed operative who tells Dean to his face that his operations in swing districts were “fucking bullshit,” chats to reporters about what a disaster Dean is, and remains silent for days after the 2006 election as James Carville and Stanley Greenberg claim that Dean’s lousy fundraising ruined Emanuel’s strategy for the midterms.
The reality, as Berman points out, is less kind to both Emanuel and Dean. The top three recipients of DCCC aid, who sucked up almost $10 million, all lost. (Netroots activists were particularly angry about Christine Cegelis, an activist in Henry Hyde’s Illinois district, who was battered by DCCC money in the Democratic primary. Emanuel backed candidate Tammy Duckworth, who lost the general election.) Emanuel’s reputation grew as Dean faded into the background, beloved by activists, dismissed by the media. (A Republican joke in D.C. goes like this: “Michael Steele is who we were hoping Howard Dean would be.” I.e., a gaffe-prone disaster.)
Emanuel’s arrival at the White House was, for progressives, an original sin. It was compounded by the way he made sure that Dean would stay outside of the White House. “There was never any intention to hire Dean,” says one Democrat who talked to Berman, “and in fact there was a great deal of satisfaction in dissing him.” That, according to the professional left, just proved what they thought about Emanuel. He thought the left was so overzealous and useless that he relished in ignoring it. Proving the left wrong was synonymous with having the right policy.
“Rahm’s Beltway reputation is mostly from his record in Congress, at the DCCC, and at the White House, of fighting progressives,” says Adam Green, the co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, which has pitched petition after petition, fundraising appeal after fundraising appeal, on anti-Emanuel sentiment. “When was the last time Rahm actually bullied a Republican or corporate executive, forcing them to cave on a popular progressive issue? It’s hard to think of a single time.”
As Emanuel heads for the exit, he loses some of his ability to shape his legacy. Objectively, he was the chief of staff for the busiest liberal White House since LBJ; objectively, he was the chief of staff who left an administration that was weakened, unpopular, presiding over 9.6 percent unemployment, and heading for brutal election losses. After the losses come, Rahm Emanuel won’t be in Washington to explain—on background, of course—that liberals blew it by asking for too much and being complacent when they didn’t get it.
“His role was to win at all costs, and he was good at that job in the House,” says Moulitsas. “In the White House, he failed. Shit, Dems can’t even pass a middle class tax cut.”
So the Professional Left faces life, for the first time, without Rahm. Do they find a new foe in Robert Gibbs or Emanuel’s eventual replacement? Do they hone in on the structural weaknesses that he failed to correct, like the administration’s snail-paced appointments to courts and Treasury positions? And perhaps most important—or most poignant—in a Rahm-less world, with no blood feuds: Who will pay attention to them?