Politics

What Is Rahm Emanuel Good For?

An inquiry into the Democrats’ most persistent figure.

Emanuel, seated in a crowd of people wearing professional attire, raises his head and laughs.
Ha ha ha! Good stuff. Scott Olson/Getty Images

Two weeks ago, rumors bubbled up on CNN that former Barack Obama chief of staff and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel was being considered to lead Joe Biden’s Department of Transportation. Monday of last week, rumors bubbled up in Crain’s Chicago that Biden is considering Emanuel for the job of U.S. trade representative. Sunday night, rumors bubbled up at Axios that Biden is now “strongly considering” Emanuel for the DOT job. (Strongly!) Someone—maybe it’s Rahm Emanuel—thinks Rahm Emanuel should play a role in the next presidential administration.

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Why? What would Emanuel contribute to the public good and to the Democratic Party in one of these jobs?

It’s a fair question because Emanuel’s time in the Obama White House and the Chicago mayor’s office show that putting him in a position of power has both political and substantive drawbacks. Most obviously, as others in the Democratic Party pointed out when the Emanuel Cabinet trial balloons ascended, his administration in Chicago spent more than a year trying to suppress the release of a video that showed that the city’s police department—which the mayor controls—had lied about the circumstances in which 17-year-old Laquan McDonald was shot and killed in 2014. (A police officer was eventually convicted of second-degree murder in the case.) Aside from the significant moral and ethical concerns his handling of the McDonald killing raises, it means many Democrats would take Emanuel’s appointment as a bitterly disappointing signal that Biden is not as serious about police accountability and reform as he claimed to be during the presidential campaign.

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The argument for Emanuel, as made by Emanuel and his many admirers in the political press, is that he knows how to win—that he is tough enough to sacrifice principles and make deals in the service of advancing the Democratic agenda. A quick spin through the Nexis database finds him described as “canny,” “cunning,” “Washington-savvy,” and “politically astute.” After he left office in Chicago, ABC made him one of its lead political analysts.

He built most of this can-do reputation in 2006, when he was the leader of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and the party gained 31 seats to take control of the House of Representatives. But there is a case, outlined in the 2012 book Herding Donkeys, that then–Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean made a more important contribution to the party’s future during that cycle by popularizing digital organizing and fundraising techniques nationally. And there’s a further case that the person most responsible for the ’06 House majority wasn’t Emanuel but George W. Bush, whose approval rating got as low as 31 percent during that election cycle as the increasingly unpopular Iraq war entered its fourth year. Rahm Emanuel, of course, supported the invasion of Iraq.

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In any event, the subsequent dozen-plus years of Emanuel’s career are marked not just by his advocacy of bad ideas, but by his efforts to talk other Democrats out of ideas that turned out to be good ones. His two years in the White House were the least politically successful of Obama’s tenure, which, accounts from the time suggest, is a matter of more than just correlation.

Emanuel, operating from a worldview formed during his time as an adviser to the endlessly triangulating Bill Clinton, believed that Obama should pursue relatively unambitious, “centrist” goals. The idea was to pressure Republicans into supporting the president’s initiatives, achieving frequent news cycle “wins” that conveyed to the public that their chief executive was always making their lives better in little ways. As Clinton’s popularity demonstrated, this is not an inherently flawed model of governance, at least from the perspective of public relations. But it proved unsuited to the scope of the challenges that Obama faced: the worst economy since the Great Depression, a mangled and corrupted health care system that he’d promised to fix, and a completely intransigent opposition party fueled by the resentful, conspiratorial concerns of the “Tea Party.”

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In this context, Emanuel’s instinct to scale down the ideas recommended by wonks and activists played to the Republican Party’s hand. He was among those who reportedly advised against proposing a trillion-dollar economic stimulus; the one that ultimately passed was $787 billion, and by the time of the 2010 midterms the unemployment rate was still nearly 10 percent. He pushed to pursue Republican votes for the Affordable Care Act—none ever materialized in either chamber of Congress—and was involved in dropping the “public option” from inclusion therein, depriving the bill of a potentially popular component that the public would have associated with the Democratic Party. (Polls now find that more than 60 percent of the country supports the creation of a public health insurance option even if you assume that, like the presidential polls in 2016 and 2020, the hard-line right-wing position is understated by 4 or 5 percentage points.)

After the Democrats lost their 60-seat Senate supermajority in a Massachusetts special election, Emanuel argued for abandoning the ACA altogether and proposing a much smaller children’s health care bill in its place. It would be hard to think of anything Obama did during his presidency that was more important, on the merits and to the continued political viability of the Democratic Party, than rejecting this advice. He unfortunately did listen to Emanuel on the subject of judicial vacancies, ignoring aides who were ready to launch a liberal version of the judgeship factory line that the Bush administration and the Federalist Society had perfected. The logic to this, again, was that pushing through left-leaning judges would waste Republican goodwill that could be better spent on legislation, but instead it created huge holes in the court system that have since been filled with Trump-appointed right-wingers, with very little cross-party goodwill created along the way.

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Emanuel left the White House in 2010 as the Democratic House majority he’d played a role in creating was obliterated by a 63-seat Republican pickup he’d plausibly had just as much to do with. In 2011, he was elected mayor in his hometown. He did win reelection in 2015—in part, his critics in the city would say, because he was able to keep the Laquan McDonald video from coming out until after the vote—but decided against running for a third term as his approval ratings dropped into the 20s.

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This rundown by Chicago alt-weekly columnist Curtis Black suggests that Emanuel’s tenure was unsuccessful for many reasons besides the McDonald case. Instead of adjusting his approach after it generated what were, at best, mixed results in the White House, he went back to the ’90s playbook. Citing budget concerns, he closed mental health facilities and public schools while putting his weight behind charter schools, privately funded infrastructure projects, and publicly subsidized real estate developments. Unlike the Democrats of the ’90s, though, Emanuel did not reap the benefits of a rocket-fueled economy, and he was dealing with voters and activists skeptical that the construction of tax-advantaged luxury apartment buildings downtown would help their neighborhoods make up for what they were losing in reduced social services. To put a point on things, one of the charter school gurus Emanuel promoted ended up paying a fine to settle Securities and Exchange Commission fraud charges; the alleged reformer he named as schools “CEO” went to jail for running a kickback scheme.

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While all this was going on, the president was pulling himself out of the public-opinion hole in which his former chief of staff had left him. He won reelection in 2012 in part by denouncing Mitt Romney’s work on Wall Street as predatory and destructive; as it happens, Emanuel currently works for a “boutique investment bank” that facilitates mergers and acquisitions. Obama never did get any Republicans to work with him, but he notched a number of important (and popular) accomplishments through ambitious executive actions after he stopped negotiating against himself: ending discrimination against gay and lesbian individuals in the military, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, reaching nuclear détente with Iran, and protecting undocumented immigrants who’d entered the U.S. as children from being deported. The last one, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, was the kind of move that Emanuel had spent more than a decade arguing that Democrats shouldn’t try to make. It had no Republican support by definition, and risked alienating the kind of culturally conservative but economically liberal white voters that he believes Democrats should prioritize. It ended up being very popular.

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Emanuel’s role in the American political environment is ultimately to pop up every so often in the news for having said something about what Democrats shouldn’t do. In 2012, there was a report that he’d told Attorney General Eric Holder, back in 2009, to “shut the fuck up” about the possibility of an assault weapons ban. In 2017, in the wake of the Women’s March and travel ban protests, he told a group at Stanford that Democrats concerned about Trump should “take a chill pill” because they weren’t going to regain power in 2018. (A woman-led wave of Democratic candidates took back the House of Representatives in that year’s election, though the party did remain in the minority in the Senate and most statehouses.) It’s hard to follow political news without finding out repeatedly what kind of ideas and people Rahm Emanuel thinks the Democratic Party shouldn’t endorse. (I’m not even going to look up what he’s said about Black Lives Matter and “defund the police.” It probably wasn’t that we should defund the police!) But if there is anything he thinks they should affirmatively stand for, besides telling Paul Krugman, Elizabeth Warren, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to shut up using the kind of profane language that Beltway reporters can’t get enough of, I haven’t been able to find it.

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This perhaps gives us a clue to what it is that Emanuel really brings to the table as a public figure, and why his stature in his party is so impervious to empirical scrutiny. He represents a significant constituency: educated, financially successful people who think of themselves as proud Democrats, but were put off by “liberals” in the Howard Dean era and are put off by “leftists” now. It makes sense that there are no particular ideals or urgent policy demands associated with this cohort, because the status quo is not a crisis situation for them. It is not a major problem in their lives if the top levels of government continue to be staffed by investment bankers and private equity managers, if the power of organized labor remains minimal, and if public schools in low-income areas are underfunded. Those probably aren’t the terms in which most of them would think of themselves—no doubt many of them are humane and personally generous people who really believe that the rising tide of meritocracy lifts all boats—but it’s where they come down politically.

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What 2020 has made clear is that Democrats actually can’t attain power without appealing to Rahm’s type of people. They exist in abundance, both in the suburban districts that the party needs to continue conquering and in the high-income urban centers that are crucial for fundraising. (The Buttigieg Belt, if you will.) It may be advisable to listen to Emanuel’s thoughts on who should be put up for office in the places where these kind of Democrats cluster—namely military veterans, football players, law enforcement officers and prosecutors, and business owners. It may even be advisable to give them the symbolic satisfaction of having one of their own in the Cabinet, though perhaps not one who got caught trying to cover up a criminal police killing.

But unless conditions change substantially in American politics, it would be a mistake for Biden to let Emanuel’s worldview guide his decision-making on any high-stakes issue. The modern Republican Party was built specifically to neutralize the Emanuel playbook: Mitch McConnell is undefeated against the pressure to defer to public opinion by “cutting a deal,” which is why, among other things, there has been no gun control legislation since Sandy Hook and Merrick Garland is still a circuit court judge. The party’s hard-line primary voters and its elected officials have come to a sort of informal agreement to rely on judicial partisanship, gerrymandering, and the minority-friendly structure of the Senate to maintain power. Meanwhile, Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders, and several overlapping protest movements have made the conservative positions on immigration, criminal justice, and labor on which Emanuelism was built unacceptable to important blocs of Democrats.

Really, the evidence of Obama’s first term and the Emanuel mayoralty in Chicago suggests that once the Rahm constituency has been placated with rhetoric and representation, its thoughts about governance should be ignored. That might sound harsh, but you can’t let identity politics get in the way of accomplishment. Sometimes you have to ruthlessly suppress certain parts of your coalition if you want to stay in power and put wins on the scoreboard. Shouldn’t Rahm Emanuel, of all people, understand that?

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