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In a Rockwell-ian retrospective softening of Rahm Emmanuel in the New York Times, David Brooks relates his personal experiences of a kinder, gentler Rahm, one that does not cuss or bully others into submission, as Rahm is regularly described as, even by President Obama. That the only fond thoughts on Rahm’s departure are coming from a conservative Beltway columnist reveals the inefficacy of Rahm as Chief of Staff under the first two years of Obama.
It is tempting to oversimplify Rahm’s impact on the Obama Administration as a short-sighted bully who may well have screwed what could have been a great presidency with his belligerence to cover up his lack of political acumen. So let me dispense with the platitudes and give in to temptation.
Where Karl Rove was “The Architect,” Rahm was more like the shady Chicago contractor you can’t get on the phone. I admonish Rahm because I am sick of bullies, especially ones that stand in the way of work getting done while they flail about abrasively. He chose to intimidate those around him and the base he could take for granted, avoided fights with those provoking a fight, and cut favorable deals for the ones he should have been fighting.
I do not begrudge Rahm his lack of progressive alignment, as many have. Rahm’s well-known contempt for the liberal base that catapulted him into the White House reveals not just a deep disassociation with Middle Class America, but a glaring indication that no matter how loudly he swears, he doesn’t understand how shit works.
When told that progressive groups were considering running ads for a more progressive candidate in a Democratic primary, Rahm called them “f-king retarded!” When Sarah Palin demanded that Obama fire Rahm and managed to make the subject about her, while Rahm had to acquiesce into some special-needs charity gestures. Rahm really should have been required to work for the progressive groups he was cursing out — collecting signatures on the street, having to listen to others’ ideas, and not having anyone from Big Money give a crap about you.
Rahm’s wrath was on display after the fierce primary earlier this year in Arkansas for the Democratic nomination for the Senate seat held by Blanche Lincoln. Bill Halter drew widespread support from progressives and unions to unseat the blue dog Democrat, but incumbents tend to work for other incumbents. The night of Lincoln’s narrow win, a statement smacking of Rahm was issued from the White House: “Organized labor just flushed $10 million of their members’ money down the toilet on a pointless exercise.” In Pennsylvania, when the progressive-backed Joe Sestak won the Democratic primary and retired the White House-backed Sen. Arlen Specter, despite Rahm’s dissuasion via Bill Clinton, those campaign dollars apparently did not go to waste.
It’s not that I am so outraged like Michael Moore that Rahm is so contemptuous of the progressive base of his own party, he would flippantly interject “Fuck the UAW” in a bailout meeting, dismissing the middle class families that comprise it because they lack clout. But I would think Rahm might at least consider the opportunity of appealing to the votes of unemployed auto-workers — they are going to vote for something that improves their situation. Or, you could blow them off and ponder the swelling ranks of the Tea Party.
While famously barbed in his meetings and deal making, it is apparent that Rahm simply doesn’t deal with people or issues he doesn’t want to deal with. Perhaps it is rationalized as go-it-alone or defining new priorities, or showing people up by touting disregard to try to make them feel small. But Rahm’s shoddy record of tenure reveals how small time he really is. Our country languishes today in atrophy from pay to play politics. Rahm is just another player in this, but more like a coach for the neighborhood bar’s softball team, not a Yankee.
Here is the simple truth: Rahm was never thinking about voters. He was thinking about donors. Campaign money means more than votes in his old school mind, so as long as the big donors were getting heard, those liberal losers with websites were just going to have to suck it up and still vote Democratic, because there is no other option.
And so in the course of financial and health care overhaul, concessions were made to giants in insurance,pharmaceutical, banking, and brokerage, after unprecedented bailouts to the financial industry. EvenDavid Brooks alludes to this in his one critique of Rahm: “He made some big mistakes: Trying to use the financial crisis as an opportunity to do everything at once.” Interesting way of putting it — ‘doing’ it for whom?
Come election season, shocker: Republicans are getting more money than Democrats at almost 6 to 1. Karl Rove is sitting on a $50 million dollar slush fund of anonymous cash. Was Rahm actually expecting gratitude, even deference, compared to the party that lives only to de-regulate big businesses? From these titans of greed? Rahm’s savoir-faire is like expecting flowers from the frat guy that told you he had a girlfriend before he date-raped you.
The Rubin-esque financial team assembled under Obama will all be at the Goldman Sachs Holiday Partythis year, I have no doubt. And they’ll all be talking about the prospects for business under a well-worn madam like John Boehner as Speaker of the House. The House Minority leader is so shameless, he will keep asking Twitter where the jobs are, while voting to support China’s currency manipulations that deprive jobs in both countries. John Boehner is so shameless he will keep demanding the deficit be reducedfirst and foremost while in the same breath insisting on extending Bush’s generous tax cuts for the rich that will add billions more to the deficit.
In his gushing NYT column today, Brooks cooed, “Rahm is completely in touch with his affections and aversions. He knows who and what he loves — Obama, Nancy Pelosi” If he loves her, then why hasn’t he helped her stay House Majority Leader? Pelosi in the end is the one that revived the over-compromised health care bill to pass at all. And on the New York Times website, just opposite David Brooks yearbook note to Rahmbo, is Bob Herbert bemoaning the audacity of John Boehner‘s tidal wave of money and self-aggrandizement.
Rahm has lost to John Boehner on both counts: He can’t possibly hope to be more shameless an advocate for the rich and win their donations, and he also couldn’t call out a buffoon like Boehner and demonize this guy who spends a third of his year on a golf course. Where the rest of the Republican Party has acquiesced to the far right fanfare about gay Kenyan abortions, Boehner has left himself as the Bill O’Reilly of the GOP, spewing out the same hollow talking points from 2003. At the recent Pledge to Americaunveiling, Boehner admitted, “we are not going to be any different than we’ve been,” to lay-ups by Stewartand Colbert. And this guy is up to be third in line for the Presidency. Again, like under Bush.
The Obama Administration could have dispatched with Boehner so long ago as the bronzed poster boy for corporate cash while not dignifying the nascent Tea Party rabble with direct criticism, but rather re-directing it at the party responsible for the economy. By acting like Obama was automatically too big for any of this kept his team’s biggest player on the bench.
The Obama Administration’s silence in response to right-wing hysteria has been deafening. While an overarching character trait of Obama’s is to maintain composure in the face of racial hysteria — which tends to be lurking at the bottom of much of the Tea Party — that does not mean that the best thing to do is ignore the outspoken opposition.
The Rise of the Fringe
Obviously you can’t control what your opponents want to think about you when they are coming up with anything that sounds bad, even if they don’t know what it means. Republicans have taken to blatantly wishing bad things to happen to America so that they can get into office, rather than have to come up with a good reason that they should lead. And Rahm can’t be held responsible for the brazen bias of FOX News and News Corp, which has finally dropped all pretenses and started giving millions to Republicans outright.
But the very mindset of having to sell everything to the Beltway, that is the tragic flaw that Rahm brought with him to a leader who literally had both houses of Congress and a laundry list of reforms ready. Amaster of the House of Representatives who oversaw new candidates into the fold, Rahm advised the President to let Health Care and other policy initiatives run their course through Congress, rather than seem overly reform-minded and getting in front of these important changes he was marshaling into a desperate America (behavior known to some as “leading”).
The carnival atmosphere that has ensued from the fringes of conservatism has been a self-propelling reality show fostered by a corporate media that cares more about getting some crazy on camera than acknowledging issues that actually affect way more people.
Republicans, along with the conservative and mainstream news (nary a difference these days) were outraged that Stephen Colbert testified about migrant farm workers and legalization of undocumented workers. Despite the fact that Colbert has done more to support our troops than they have, or even acknowledge the painful truth that Colbert brought to Congress and the public, these commentators spent a week condemning the very testimony as a stunt and an affront.
This from the party whose own U.S. Representative took to the floor of the House of Republicans to debate provisions of health care legislation presenting a baby. Rep. John Shadegg (R) of Arizona explained that this baby — not even his, just somebody’s baby – apparently knew that health care reform, while good intentioned, was not properly funded, and socialist. While this could have been tied to an amendment lowering of the age to be an elected official to 6 months old, this really was empty showmanship, and should have been called out as the lamest political stunt since the last time John Boehner openly wept.
But even if he was dismissing the increasingly desperate right wing agitprop, there were less-profile, though more crucial responsibilities of Chief of Staff that Rahm neglected as well.
The Justice Department
As detailed in Harpers, one of the primary responsibilities of a Chief of Staff is to fill court vacancies, and by that measure Rahm was a total failure. Scott Horton writes that this “points to a White House that is simply oblivious to the nominations process. On this measure, Rahm Emanuel is the worst performing White House chief of staff in recent memory.” Again, this missed opportunity may enrage progressives, but I am struck by the lack of practical forethought.
If Rahm’s smarts had been questioned, worse still, his effectiveness was called out.
Looking to bolster his rep in the Beltway, Rahm made a plain effort at his own spin in a Washington Postcolumn by Dana Milbank on February 21st. The curious talking-point buffet was immediately called outthroughout the media as an unsubtle attempt at self-promotion by Rahm. It was then I first saw the description of Rahm as the “Mayberry Machiavelli.” Even David Brooks agrees: “Over all, Rahm is a warmhearted Machiavellian.” Karl Rove cooked up a sprawling media roll-out for a non-existent threat in Iraq, and we still have 50,000 troops there. Rahm tried to gin himself some good buzz and it couldn’t even survive a news cycle.
Even in aiming small, Rahm has relied on blunt insistence, while preferring to ignore other matters of obvious priority. Worse still, he probably thought he was brilliant for it. Why Howard Dean was shut out of the White House after leading the DNC to a new surge probably has to do with Rahm, whom he had worked closely with in the 2006 50-State strategy. Now that Republicans are employing the same strategy this election cycle, I wonder if putting up with Howard Dean’s pomposity was such an obstacle to retaining power.
But the only real problem with Rahm is that Obama has listened to him. Obama has joked about Rahm’sintemperate management and made it seem okay because it was effective. Roasting Rahm while still in the Senate, Obama quipped that as a teenager working at a deli, Rahm lost the top of his middle finger in an accident, rendering him practically mute. This made Rahm being a well-known jerk apparently okay.
Entourage was Obama’s favorite show on the campaign trail, and this has been widely covered, as has the similarities between Jeremy Piven’s manic bullying character and the Emanuel brothers. The parallels were intriguing — the glamorized insulation of widely loved celebrity among his friends who had his back, with a pit bull of an agent whose abusive means are charmingly justified by the ends. But at some point, I think Obama grasped the shortcomings in Rahm compared to the macho alter-ego of Rahm’s brother Ari on Entourage.
On that show, deus ex machina runs rampant, in a soapy fantasy life kind of thrill. Deus ex machina is a term from Greek drama referring to when a god was introduced to the stage–a crane that would lower an actor from the top of the stage who was wearing a mask that projected their voice, who would make a pronouncement of a sudden change of fortunes for the characters, by the gods’ decree. In storytelling, when a convenient windfall or extraneous gift is given to a character rather than their having worked and built up to it within the story, that kind of easy-writing device is known as deus ex machina. To go from obscurity to president so quickly, Obama must be able to relate to the experience of deus ex machina. And while Entourage isn’t Ayn Rand unrealistic, I fear it affected Obama’s perception of how good of a job macho Rahmbo was doing.
This isn’t lamenting Entourage; that’s the point of the show — to keep seeing how life gets better for these guys in spite of themselves, and we enjoy watching it because that shit doesn’t happen to us. That is what entertainment is for. Even its star Adrian Grenier gets this and made a documentary about it. But I never thought such a wish fulfillment bro-medy could be so dangerous (to grown men with law degrees, anyway).
And so it is with dim hopes that I watch Rahm wade back into the swamps of Windy City politics. It is troubling to know that Chicagoans will be subjected to a resurrected version of the Daley Machine, like another vaguely recognizable Terminator spin-off. Maybe Obama will be himself now; maybe he will dress down his opponents like he does so well when allowed to acknowledge them. And maybe the President will recall that voters got him there, along with a lot of small donations.
At least today, I have no doubt there is celebration among employees in the West Wing. I can only hope they are able to spread their new found freedom to the rest of the country.
John Wellington Ennis’s documentary PAY 2 PLAY studies the Citizens United decision and the need for campaign reform.