The Rahm Goodbye

The dribble of leaks from the White House suggests Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel will soon announce his decision to run for mayor of his native Chicago. I'll spare you the anecdotes about his temper and his language, but Emanuel's larger-than-life personality has been reflected in his larger-than-usual impact on Washington. Emanuel has been deeply influential in national politics since taking over the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in 2005; he was one of the chief executors of a hard-nosed strategy to lift his party after successive defeats in the first three national elections of the new century.

If he leaves, progressives will rejoice. They blame Emanuel for most of President Barack Obama's governing compromises and give him little credit for the administration's hard-won accomplishments. His mutually antagonistic relationship with progressive activists, dating back to the Democrats' struggle to regain a majority in Congress, has come to define him, but if he departs, remember: For all his debatable realism, Emanuel brought mainstream Democrats a toughness and discipline that will be missed when he goes.

Back home, his contretemps with the left may be his Achilles' heel. Chicago's progressive community doesn't trust Emanuel, even -- or especially -- those he represented in Congress from 2002 to 2008. According to Chicago politicos, he doesn't have much of a local base and would rely on the ailing Daley machine, the business community, and his friends among the city's Democrats. It's hard to imagine Obama campaigning for him if he runs, with so many constituencies to be upset.

"If Daley decides to help him, he becomes formidable," says Don Rose, a longtime Democratic political consultant in the city. What would he tell Rahm about the race? "You got a shot, but [Cook County Sheriff Tom] Dart's got a better shot."

In Chicago, Emanuel faces a city with a massive budget deficit and a political culture defined by corruption, where getting things done involves navigating the competing claims of interest groups, identity coalitions, and partisan factions. This is to say, he would be leaving Washington for the chance to deal with the same sort of problems that have run him ragged on the national level.

It is fitting that Emanuel would leave the capital prior to what will likely be electoral defeat for the Democrats. These are the majorities that Emanuel helped build by working to get conservative Democrats elected in traditionally Republican territory. This was an approach that made governing challenging, to say the least. Yet for all the charges that his reputation as a strategist is overstated, the House that Rahm built consistently provided the votes for the most progressive versions of the administration's proposals, from cap-and-trade to health-care reform; the Senate was where bills went to die.

There's little reason to believe Emanuel's departure will lead to changes in White House policy, because it's not his leadership that creates the conflict between the White House and its political base. The source of conflict is Obama's post-partisan nature, and the demographics: Progressives are the smaller chunk of the electorate, conservatives the larger one, and business interests pour money into only one of those two sectors. Moving policy in a progressive direction is a game of inches, but with Emanuel at the helm, the current administration has pulled off landmark victories in health care, financial regulation, and the stimulus bill.

In replacing his fireplug prime minister, President Obama appears likely to tap Pete Rouse, his old Senate chief of staff and a longtime, low-key Washington hand. Rouse doesn't bring Emanuel's profile, nor does he seem likely to seek it, but it might signal a return to a more original Obama. The ascension of Rouse, and economic adviser Austan Goolsbee, favors a mix of advisers from the president's days as a senator. Meanwhile, post-election hires like Emanuel, National Economic Council Director Larry Summers, and perhaps National Security Adviser James Jones are leaving the building.

Emanuel's most significant contribution to the Democratic Party as a staffer, legislator, and operative wasn't his pragmatism but his will to win and his organizational capacity. Some forget it now, but after years of stereotypical Democratic fecklessness, Emanuel brought a ruthless, programmatic partisanship to Democratic politics that, early in his tenure as DCCC chair, even won him begrudging respect among the netroots. He's the only Democratic operative -- aside, perhaps from Michael Whouley -- who has ever made Republicans nervous.

The promise and tragedy of Emanuel's electoral coalition were clear last week, when Democrats announced they would not vote to extend broad-based tax cuts while moderately increasing taxes on the wealthy. It's a popular policy, and many liberals saw the vote as an opportunity go on the offensive, but skittish members facing tough elections panicked as Republicans promised to attack them as tax raisers. It was the kind of collective flop that characterized the pre-2005 Democratic Party. Maybe that's simply because there aren't enough real progressives in office, but even California's Barbara Boxer demurred on the vote.

Emanuel was never, according to a source familiar with his thinking, able to convince the president to be a party leader as well as an officeholder, someone who had to be a partisan and a pragmatist at the same time; the frustration, shared with the left, is part of the reason he may leave early. The president's post-partisan emphasis hurt his clout and that of his staffers, so there's no one to play "Rahmbo," to knock heads together and get Democrats on the same page. It's doubtful that Emanuel's successors will be more effective until Obama decides he's a politician as well as a president. While progressives may not miss his policy advice, we'll come to miss Rahm's politics.

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