Mayor Rahm Emanuel thinks he has some advice for the grassroots activists who are responding with such urgency to the rise of Donald Trump: “Take a chill pill.” They won’t listen to him, nor should they.
Emanuel may be uniquely unqualified to comprehend, much less comment on, the progressive upsurge seen in the huge Women’s March on Washington, airport blockades in response to Trump’s Muslim immigration ban, and crowds of hundreds corralling members of Congress across the country over the future of health care.
The mayor’s comments came in response to a question framed by his supposed success in winning a Democratic majority in the House of Representatives in the 2006 midterm election. Emanuel claims the victory was due to the “moderate” candidates he ran, saying he “got a lot of crap for recruiting Iraq war vet football players, a sheriff, business people.”
The problem wasn’t his candidates’ resumes, though. As head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, Emanuel recruited candidates who were pro-war, pro-guns, anti-abortion and anti-immigrant.
That’s pretty much the opposite of the values of millions of citizens who have taken to the streets in recent weeks, and who are determined to turn around the Democratic Party. If the party is to have a future, they are it. Nor are they the “hard left,” as some media types cast them. They are the American center, appalled at what’s happening to our country under Trump.
Emanuel now says his goal in 2006 was to “take cultural issues off the table” and “present economic issues.” But on economics, his candidates represented the Washington consensus in favor of free trade agreements that enshrine investor rights – the same tired consensus against which Sen. Bernie Sanders mobilized deep opposition in the Democratic primaries last year, and that Trump exploited so cynically in November.
The truth of the 2006 election was that the top three recipients of DCCC cash – who together got nearly $10 million – all lost, and of 22 initial candidates backed by Emanuel’s committee, only nine won their elections. What swung the election to the Democrats was the deep unpopularity of President George W. Bush and the Iraq war, nourished by a new “netroots” insurgency within the Democratic Party. Emanuel’s pro-war candidates had trouble catching the wave – but now he claims the election victory as his own.
The Blue Dog Democrats Emanuel elected were a major source of trouble when President Obama was trying to pass an economic stimulus and health care reform. And these “Republican Lite” politicians were the first to fall in the Tea Party election of 2010.
Now Emanuel wants us to believe the problem with the Democrats is that “our party likes to be right, even if they lose.” His mantra: “Winning is everything. If you don’t win, you can’t make public policy.”
Others have noted this philosophical bent. In 2010, Dan Fromkin wrote at Huffington Post: “For [Emanuel], victory is everything – even if you have to give up your core values, and even if you could have won while sticking to them.”
It gets particularly dangerous – and particularly cynical – when you bend policy decisions to a sense of what’s politically advantageous, as American Civil Liberties Union Executive Director Anthony Romero noted. When Emanuel served as former President Obama’s chief of staff, Romero said, he was focused “less on policy outcomes and more on a Democratic agenda that will keep the party in power.”
It was cynical political calculation that led Emanuel to oppose closing the detention center at Guantanamo Bay – a human rights disaster where men with no known connection to terrorism continue to rot – or to encourage House Democrats in “tough” districts to provide the winning margin for the draconian immigration bill sponsored by Wisconsin Republican James Sensenbrenner in 2005.
It was cynical political calculation – a too-clever ploy to “triangulate” and win the votes of white Republicans – that led Emanuel to push policies in the Clinton administration such as welfare reform and a tough-on-crime agenda of prison construction, three-strikes-you’re-out criminal sentencing provisions, mandatory minimum sentencing and an expanded death penalty. These have devastated poor communities in Chicago and must be counted among the root causes of the violence that screams from our headlines today.
Perhaps most striking about Emanuel’s remarks was his complete lack of urgency. “Take a chill pill.” Focus on “the long haul.” “It ain’t gonna happen in 2018.” (Considering recent history – and the close margin in the Senate today – this last prediction is utterly baseless.) It demonstrates Emanuel’s complete disconnection from the Democratic Party’s base.
It also reflects the fact that Trump is the best thing that’s happened to Rahm Emanuel in a long time. Trump is the perfect foil for the unpopular mayor: a political leader who is even more unpopular than he is. He can strike the pose of champion of the people – even if that still doesn’t carry over to his actual policies.
And it’s likely that Emanuel realizes that the wave of protest and grassroots engagement greeting Trump today could sweep over Emanuel himself tomorrow.