White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel does not have a reputation for being a very nice guy. President Obama’s fixer—or “Rahmbo” as he’s known—was of course at the center of recent controversy after calling a group of liberal activists “fucking retarded.” Sarah Palin, whose son has Down’s syndrome, denounced his use of “the r-word” and called for him to resign. While Emanuel may not really connect the word with the developmentally disabled, no one says Emanuel—who is also known for calling Republicans “knucklefucks”—is particularly sensitive to the feelings of others. But a spate of sympathetic profiles have come out suggesting that he is the one person in the administration who knows what he’s doing.
In The Washington Post, Dana Milbank wrote that “Obama’s first year fell apart in large part because he didn’t follow his chief of staff’s advice on crucial matters.” Dismissing the rest of Obama’s advisors as naive and “blinded by Obama love,” Milbank wrote that that Rahm Emanuel was arguably “the only person keeping Obama from becoming Jimmy Carter.” Another Post reporter, Jason Horowitz, suggested that Emanuel “may be the White House voice of reason” and quotes an anonymous House Democrat who said, “I don’t think the White House has listened to him enough.” Noam Scheiber’s profile in The New Republic is more nuanced—and of the three, the most worth reading—but also portrays Emanuel as the pragmatic insider Obama needs to help him avoid some of the mistakes of the Carter and Clinton administrations.
These articles—whether engineered by Rahm Emanuel himself or one of his allies—smack of spin and score-settling. The reaction on the left, where Emanuel is seen as “Obama’s Dick Cheney,” was immediate. Dan Froomkin called Emanuel “the chief of sabotage.” Emanuel, after all, has opposed many things dear to the Democratic base. He pushed a smaller health care bill without a public option, opposed closing Guantanamo, and opposed trying Khalid Sheikh Mohamed in a federal court—which now looks like a battle he might win. Emanuel may have been right in the sense that the Democrats could have avoided some controversy if they had followed his advice more closely—although he has largely gotten his way on most of these issues. But it’s not clear that avoiding controversy is in the Democrats’ best interest. It certainly hasn’t stopped the Republicans from attacking them. The Democrats’ reluctance to challenge Republican attacks may in fact have encouraged Republicans to amp up their rhetoric.
The truth is that Rahm Emanuel’s strategy—although sharply at odds with Obama’s campaign rhetoric—has been the Democratic playbook since September 11. Froomkin calls Emanuel a “Bush Democrat” in the sense that like most Democrats under President Bush, he “operates on a battlefield as defined by Republicans, where the terrain is littered with the specter of imaginary but profoundly terrifying GOP attack ads. His reflexive approach is the strategic retreat.” And the “political fiascos” Milbank says Emanuel helped the Democrats avoid are what many on the left would have called “accomplishments.” Closing Guantanamo and passing health care reform aren’t tactical objectives. They were campaign promises, the precise things many of Obama’s supporters voted for him to do. To many of his followers they were moral imperatives. But to Emanuel, they were less important than staying in power.
Rahm Emanuel’s signature accomplishment exemplifies the Democrats’ strategy. In 2006 he helped the Democrats win a majority in the House by backing conservative Democrats in contested districts. The fruit of his strategy was a substantial, but relatively conservative Democratic majority, which has generally been too timid to take any stand that might open it up to attack. While it may be better to pass the health care bill before Congress than to pass nothing at all, it’s not at all clear that a more polarizing, controversial bill might not have been more popular in the long run. At least it would have made someone happy. As it is, the Democrats are still getting attacked by the Republicans, even though they have done very little of what they were elected to do.