The Meaning of the Midterms

The Thumpin': How Rahm Emanuel and the Democrats Learned to Be Ruthless and Ended the Republican Revolution by Neftali Bendavid (Doubleday, 272 pages)

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The morning after Election Day 2006, President Bush offered a group of reporters his analysis of the day's events: "It was a thumpin.'" With a title based on what is certainly one of the president's more astute one-liners, the story of how the Democratic Party gained 30 congressional seats -- twice what it needed to retake the House -- is one that will be held up as an example for years to come. Borrowing the president's phraseology, one of the first books to take a stab at the triumphant tale is Neftali Bendavid's The Thumpin': How Rahm Emanuel and the Democrats Learned to Be Ruthless and Ended the Republican Revolution.

Although the title promises to discuss Rahm Emanuel and the Democrats, the story is Emanuel's. It would be unfair to call it biography, but The Thumpin' is the fullest portrait yet of the young Illinois congressman's rise from scrappy, unpolished political operative to powerful, if still unpolished, politician. Before Nancy Pelosi asked Emanuel to head the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), he was best known as an ace fundraiser and for pushing through NAFTA on behalf of President Clinton, but few outside official Washington knew his name. Cognizant of the fact that his political career would ride on how the Democrats fared, he was initially reluctant to take the DCCC position, admitting to Pelosi that he doubted the Democrats had much of a chance at the House. Nonetheless, after some consideration and further urging, Emanuel signed on for one of the most notoriously thankless jobs in politics.

The DCCC granted Bendavid, deputy Washington bureau chief for the Chicago Tribune, exclusive access to campaign headquarters under the condition that his interviews and observations stay embargoed until after the midterms. What Bendavid discloses in his book gives new life to this recent history, with juicy behind-the-scenes details of one of the most moneyed, vicious campaigns in American history; his is a compelling narrative that picks up speed as the Democrats do. And as an Emanuel primer, The Thumpin' is a fun, insider look at one of Washington's most revered and reviled operatives, chockablock with the cheeky anecdotes that are Emanuel's signature trait. (My personal favorite is Emanuel's "Fuck you. I love you" sign off to candidates -- encouraging words to be sure.) Bendavid, if not quite fawning, clearly enjoys his subject.

The book begins shortly after the 2004 election, when conservatives were touting the death of liberalism and the Democrats were looking into the abyss of permanent minority status. Grover Norquist guessed Republicans would hold onto the House "until at least 2012, but probably another decade." Rove looked forward to a reign not unlike that enjoyed by the Democrats under FDR. It's a fascinating story how the mighty fell, and Bendavid does a good job of carefully illustrating how Hurricane Katrina, the Iraq War, and a season of damaging scandals -- Jack Abramoff, Tom DeLay, Mark Foley -- were so integral to Democratic victory.

But the more compelling story, which continues to unfold even today, comes when Bendavid pulls back from the day-to-day of the campaign to examine what the midterm elections meant for the identity of the Democratic Party. In an election where more moderates and centrists were elected than in any year past, many -- bloggers being the loudest among them -- have wondered whether the party has abandoned its base.

Certainly Emanuel holds no such romantic notions that there even exists such a base of voters loyal to core Democratic values. He is adamant that "we have no base!," a view that clearly guided his strategy for selecting candidates. As Bendavid writes, "he would not support the most loyal Democrats, or those whose populism was purist. His only criterion, he said, was who could win." This kind of single-minded, values-be-damned vision is anathema to some on the party's left. Writing for The Nation after the election, John Nichols complained that "many of the Democrats who prevailed on November 7 did so despite [Emanuel's] efforts, not because of them" and argues that liberal candidates could have won had Emanuel made the decision to support them. Yet as Bendavid points out, "of the 30 candidates who took seats from the Republicans, about 20 had been nurtured, funded, advised, and yelled at by Emanuel for months. Perhaps a half dozen had been supported by grassroots activists with little help from the DCCC."

The relationship that epitomizes the rift between Emanuel and the party base is the congressman's tenuous partnership with Democratic National Committee chair Howard Dean. As the book relates, Emanuel spent most of the campaign furious with Dean, whose Fifty State Strategy to build up party infrastructure nationwide he saw as little more than a way to throw money to the wind. In May 2006, Emanuel and Senator Charles Schumer, his counterpart in the Senate, met with Dean to ask for more money for their respective campaigns. Banging his hand on the table, Emanuel chided Dean's grassroots plan, "No disrespect, but some of us are arrogant enough, we come from Chicago, we think we know what it means to knock on a door. You're nowhere Howard. Your field plan is not a field plan. That's fucking bullshit." The two wouldn't speak again until election time.

With or without Dean, Emanuel is a master fundraiser; he spent most of the 22 months before the midterm elections raising money, yelling at candidates to raise money, and yelling at donors to pledge more money. And it worked. The Democrats, who have always trailed Republicans in fundraising, raised more money last year than they had in any previous campaign for Congress ($140 million to the Republican's $175 million).

To be sure, there's some benefit to breaking fundraising records. But any Emanuel-style strategy of focusing on the wealthy is sure to exclude from candidacy all but the wealthiest and those who know how to attract them. If the Democrats continue on this path, finding candidates who represent a district's constituents will become increasingly difficult as those very constituents are shut out. Too bad that this, as Bendavid points out, is no longer Emanuel's fucking problem.