Why the Left Couldn’t Destroy Rahm Emanuel

At a moment when police violence against people of color has become a national emergency, Emanuel left office furious at how he and the city government dealt with one of the country’s most infamous episodes, the murder of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald , who was hit by 16 bullets while walking away from an officer.

At a moment when the left is being widely touted for its newfound power, Biden ignored warnings from rising stars like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez about a figure they believe embodies the problems facing the Democratic Party. Instead, he appointed Emanuel to represent the country to a major world power – a post that has historically been given to such notables as Caroline Kennedy, former Vice President Walter Mondale and former Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield.

Emanuel’s survival is more than luck. It comes from more than good connections, even if they obviously help.

It arises from some characteristic factors that illuminate important dynamics in contemporary politics – why many politicians see their careers shredded by controversy, while a much smaller number manage to overcome efforts to destroy them and thrive for long years.

There are three lessons that any political figure – even those who detest Emanuel and the brand of democratic centrism he espouses – could use to their advantage. f

Lesson One: Don’t take the hint

A more conventional politician with Emanuel’s scar tissue might have decided that a major appointment in the Biden administration calls for trouble. Simply put, his urge to be in action is unconventional. Neither is his pain tolerance.

Two other politicians help illustrate the point.

Al Franken has quit his job as US Senator from Minnesota. He did so reluctantly and quickly regretted his choice. But the moment he was accused of sexual harassment in December 2017 and angered by fellow Democrats like Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (DN.Y.), he felt he had no choice.

But he had a choice. Look at Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, who just finished his full term at the turn of the year. He did so amid a wave of generally positive media coverage of his record of racial reconciliation. Much of this came from outlets thundering for his resignation three years ago after revelations about a 1984 yearbook picture of what appeared to be a black-faced man. Northam had apparently been on the verge of giving in to calls for his departure before deciding at the last moment to stay put. In a television appearance, Emanuel had urged him not to resign, a clip Northam saw. He called Emanuel thanking him.

It turns out that part of political power stems from psychology. It can be a positive trait as an individual that the brass men may or may not ignore public or private criticism. But in an age of increasing political and media ferocity, it can be an indispensable part of political character. Most people just aren’t wired that way.

Emanuel was when he was young. When Emanuel was former President Bill Clinton’s first political director in the White House in 1993, his brazen style earned the disapproval of First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton. She wanted him gone. White House Chief of Staff Mack McLarty came up with a not-so-subtle suggestion that Emanuel might be happier on the Democratic National Committee. Emanuel said he would not leave the White House unless Bill Clinton himself told him to – knowing the conflict-averse president was unlikely to force the issue. Within a few years, Emanuel had relentlessly climbed back into favor as one of the few key Clinton aides.

For someone like former President Donald Trump, whose whole appeal rests on a contempt for establishment piety, it’s easier to dismiss an astute consensus about whether to be up or down or what to “do” in response to setbacks. It’s harder for someone like Emanuel — or Clinton, or former President Barack Obama — whose entire career has consisted of navigating the establishment and winning its grand prizes. Yet it is precisely this kind of monomania for staying alive and in the arena that allows Emanuel to seek and win a top Biden appointment despite all the scar tissue he has accumulated.

Lesson Two: Save a hacker’s soul

Emanuel started out as an agent, fundraiser and campaign worker for the Democratic campaign committee. As he rose from the Clinton years — as an investment banker, as a congressman, as Obama’s White House chief of staff, and then as mayor — it would have been natural for him to think, “I’ve earned the right to stop rushing and with the dignity and to act at a distance from a client.”

What Emanuel does know is that in modern political culture, agents — those close to the gossip, the evolving media narratives, those trying to kill whom — often have more real power than the clients. It’s the same as another generation agent-turned-director, James Baker, understood. Even after becoming Treasury Secretary and Secretary of State, he never stopped working in Washington and working on history.

Who is that ringing on my cell phone on a Sunday morning? Oh, it’s cream. I’m walking the dogs – should I do that? Sure, why not. What’s on his mind? Usually a question about whether I’ve seen an article, or a conceptual argument he has about how the Democrats are screwing up or have a great chance of winning with it. He’s smart, he’s funny, he’s astute in his assessments of fellow politicians. He’s gone pretty quickly, on to the next call.

I enjoy the exchange, but I have no illusions that I am in an exclusive group. How many people get these calls? I’m sure there are many dozens. (“I spoke to Daschle…” “Carville said the same thing you did, but Paul disagrees…”) I know several journalists who understand them.

Perhaps this proves that we are all swamp creatures alike. But simply for practical reasons, the operational mindset is essential to how Emanuel wields power. That’s why he joined forces with Biden in the Obama White House. Because of this, Chief of Staff and Associate Ron Klain (who can be seen as he looked 30 years ago with Emanuel The War Room, the 1992 Clinton campaign documentary) felt he had to come up with a cool job for Emanuel, even when the Secretary of Transportation’s original idea didn’t go through. Because of this, several key members of the Chicago City Council’s Black Caucus, as well as New Jersey Senator Cory Booker, supported Emanuel’s nomination as ambassador and prevented the vote from becoming a racial litmus test.

As a side note, given how much politicians resent coverage — craving more of it, but also bemoaning what they get — it’s surprising how few have mastered the relatively simple art of media relations. There is nothing Emanuel does that no ambitious politician, left or right, cannot do. He already works in the Japanese media.

Lesson Three: Governance Matters

I know Emanuel well enough to know that he is like most other politicians and different from them. I know him too well to be the proper reporter to judge his accomplishments.

If you want to know why a lot of people think he’s such a deplorable character, there is one decent here and another with a List of charges here.

As for the anger he inspires on the left, however, what strikes me is that in the nearly three decades that I have covered Emanuel, the mythology surrounding him has shifted from a reputation as a rabid democratic partisan to one as a repulsive one Democrat has turned apologist — an appeaser of businessmen and conservatives who is hardly a progressive.

Supporters of this latter view will not be surprised that Emanuel’s 48-21 Senate confirmation — 31 senators didn’t vote — came with the support of Republicans like Sens. Roy Blunt of Missouri and Rob Portman of Ohio.

It is not intended as a mockery of those on the left who consider Emanuel a democrat in name only, but merely as a statement of practical fact that his hands have been intimately involved in more concrete progressive gains than most of his opponents on the left. These include the groundbreaking CHIP health program for children from lower-income families, which Emanuel negotiated on behalf of Clinton in 1997. It includes a key role in helping Democrats win the House of Representatives in 2006, making Nancy Pelosi the speaker. It included expanding preschool education in Chicago’s troubled public schools, raising the minimum wage, and subsidizing community colleges during his tenure as mayor.

The democratic debate about the right balance between pragmatism and ideology is likely to intensify in the coming years. It seems likely that Emanuel’s fascination with tactile government work and the relationships he has built in that work is one reason he is still on stage when so many people tried to chase him off.

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