The Case Against the Case Against Rahm

A surprising number of people seem to have strong opinions about whether Rahm Emanuel should stay or go as White House chief of staff. It's surprising because chief of staff is kind of a black-box job -- or should be, anyway -- not a public performance. To find another chief of staff who evoked such strong opinions, one would have to go back 20 years, to the imperious John H. Sununu in the George H.W. Bush White House.

In part, the case against Emanuel can be based on trace evidence of his performance on the job. There are the reports that Emanuel and Sen. Lindsay Graham have been working together on the effort to switch the administration's position on civilian trials for terrorist defendants. And the transparently planted defenses of Emanuel, notably Dana Milbank's in The Washington Post, are littered with disparagements of his intramural rivals, and even of the president, that are disconcerting coming from someone whose primary obligation is to maintain order.

But for the progressives who are certain that Emanuel must go, the strong case has less to do with his work behind the walls of the White House and more to do with a four-year-old grudge match involving the 2006 midterm election, when then-Rep. Emanuel chaired the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and won back the House of Representatives. Here's the succinct version, from Dan Froomkin in the Huffington Post:

Emanuel's greatest "victory" … the one upon which he earned his reputation: Getting a bunch of conserva-Dems elected in purple states in 2006, winning the party control of the House while at the same time crippling its progressive agenda. … For him, victory is everything -- even if you have to give up your core values to win, and even if you could have won while sticking to them.

In this argument, the 31-seat Democratic gain in 2006 -- the second largest swing in a quarter-century -- was a Pyrrhic victory. Writing in The Nation at the time, John Nichols dismissed it with a braggadocio that will be familiar to anyone who's ever listened to men in a sports bar: The Democrats who won "did so despite the Illinois congressman's efforts, not because of them." Could a different, more progressive DCCC chair "have won even more seats?" Nichols asked, and answered his own question: "Of course."

The legend of the great conserva-Dem sellout of 2006 is relevant not just as evidence of Emanuel's character but as explanation of his perceived limits in his current job. So Nichols' boss, Nation editor Katrina vanden Heuvel, complained recently in The Washington Post that Emanuel "is a product of his environment … the House of Representatives of the 2000s," and "his insistence on maintaining business as usual, achieved by always tacking center, is to the detriment … of Obama's agenda, which recognizes that Americans are tired of business as usual and hope … that there is another, more progressive, way to get things done."

In the White House, Emanuel is reported to resist daring progressive moves, pushing, for example, for a more incremental approach to health care, warning of political resistance in Congress. But vanden Heuvel dismisses that excuse as Emanuel's own creation. After all, he built the Democratic majority on the "tacking center" assumptions of the 2000s, and therefore can't see the possibilities of a different approach.

Froomkin and vanden Heuvel's argument is complicated and needs to be unpacked. It depends on the assumption of an alternative path: a 110th Congress that would have included not only more Democrats, as Nichols boasts he could have achieved, but more progressives as well. Given that as a party's majority expands, it always does so by moving into territory further from its base, that's a tough bit of speculation to back up -- any additional Democratic victories would certainly have had to come from congressional districts that had supported George W. Bush.

The claim rests on three pieces of credible evidence: Reps. John Yarmuth of Kentucky, Carol Shea-Porter of New Hampshire, and Jerry McNerney of California, progressives who defeated Emanuel's preferred candidates in primaries, and with only grudging support from the DCCC went on to defeat their Republican opponents. Given that those three won, the Nichols-Froomkin theory has to assume that there were potentially more like them, seats left on the table that the Dems would have won but for Emanuel's short-sightedness. There may be a few, such as Christine Cegelis, an Illinois progressive who lost to DCCC-backed Tammy Duckworth (an Iraq veteran -- Emanuel's favorite credential), who in turn lost the general election. More likely, though, Emanuel responsibly prepared for an ordinary election, in which most seats are decided on their own terms, rather than the rare nationalized "wave" election; late circumstances and Republican scandals aligned to create a wave strong enough to pull in even a few candidates like Shea-Porter who would have had difficulty winning their districts in most years.

And the candidates Emanuel backed actually weren't, on the whole, all that conservative. Some are, like North Carolina's Heath Shuler, a social conservative/economic populist in a conservative rural district, or the three victors in Indiana. But the archetypal Emanuel candidate in 2006 was Joe Sestak of Pennsylvania, not just a veteran but an admiral, who now represents the left in his primary challenge to party-switching Sen. Arlen Specter. According to my analysis of the Voteview database, the best political-science ranking of members of Congress by ideology, only 12 of the 41 Democrats elected in 2006 number among the most conservative 20 percent of all House Democrats in the current Congress -- which is to say that they are not dramatically more conservative than the caucus as a whole, even though they come from more marginal districts.

Emanuel's Class of '06 candidates have also not been a particular source of trouble for the Obama agenda. Only two of them (Shuler and Mike Arcuri of New York) voted against health reform, and not one of Emanuel's winners is on the list of Democrats who say they will oppose the bill if it doesn't protect the anti-choice Stupak Amendment. The current freshman class, elected in 2008 when Chris van Hollen -- welcomed by Nichols as a progressive "far more in touch with the values of Democratic voters than Emanuel" -- ran the committee, has been far more troublesome on financial regulation as well as health reform. That's not an indictment of van Hollen but a function of political math -- as a party's majority expands, it captures districts that are more vulnerable, creating members who are more worried about both campaign contributions and votes.

Emanuel spent the 2006 cycle in pitched, profane battle with DNC Chair Howard Dean and much of the progressive netroots who were enamored of the "Fifty-State Strategy" of running strong progressive candidates everywhere. Emanuel didn't fully embrace the Dean strategy. But he got about halfway there, opening up the map far beyond what previous DCCC chairs -- who usually concentrated all their resources on about 30 races -- had done and supporting surprising candidates like Harry Mitchell in Arizona. With hindsight, he might have gone a little further. But the mythology of the path not taken, the "bunch of conserva-Dems" makes it all too easy for progressives to fantasize that, but for Emanuel, all the political challenges of the past year would have disappeared. It's a politically immature fantasy -- there have always been conservative Democrats and vulnerable, cautious Democrats, and the bigger the Democratic majority, the more of them there will be. That's political life, not Rahm Emanuel's invention.

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