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Carol Felsenthal
On politics

The DNC Needs a New Leader: How About Rahm?

A newly unleashed Rahm could provide the fire needed to propel flagging Democrats forward.

In happier times, Rahm Emanuel prepares to speak to the Illinois delegation at the 2012 Democratic National Convention.  Photo: Nancy Stone/Chicago Tribune

Not that he asked me, but here’s some advice for Rahm Emanuel: Run for the chairmanship of the Democratic National Committee.

The new DNC chairman will be elected when all 447 members meet on February 24, but the auditions are on right now.

Get in the mix. Get out of Dodge. Leave behind the burden of running a city tortured by homicides that this year top 700 with a month to go. Leave behind the stubborn unpopularity with African Americans who make up one third of the city’s population. (Even before Laquan McDonald became a household name in Chicago, Rahm’s support among African Americans was eight percent.)

Bid farewell to all those Chicago guys who have their eyes on your office—think city treasurer Kurt Summers, Cook County sheriff Tom Dart, Ald. Scott Waguespack, state senator Kwame Raoul. And that’s just the short list.

Read more: Tom Dart Once Again Ponders Mayoral Run

Now that the party has ceded control of the White House and failed to win control of either the House or Senate, the DNC—more than ever—needs a loud spokesman for Democrats and their values; a smart, energetic, forceful partisan; an athlete to sprint around the country selecting and recruiting candidates who can win.

Democrats need someone quite different from the old, discredited model: Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz. She headed the party part-time and email leaks showed her, during the primaries, favoring Hillary Clinton over Bernie Sanders. Her successor, acting chair Donna Brazile—whose last big political gig was battling Bill Daley for traction in the 2000 Gore campaign—likewise got tangled in leaked emails; in her case revealing that, while working as a paid pundit for CNN, she apparently provided at least one debate question to Hillary’s team.

The 2016 Senate map was hugely favorable to Democrats, and they failed to win back control. In 2018 the map is hugely favorable to Republicans. Without a strong leader, Democrats could look back to November 2016 as the glory days.

Seems like a scenario custom-made for Rahm, whose track record in this arena is exemplary. While serving in Congress, he headed the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and was acknowledged to be the tactics, brains, and brawn behind the Democrats taking back the House in 2006. Years before that, in 1988, when Rahm was working at the DCCC as national campaign director, even though George H.W. Bush won the White House that year, Democrats picked up several seats.

The leading candidate for DNC chair is Minnesota congressman Keith Ellison, 53, an active Bernie Sanders surrogate in the primaries turned Hillary supporter in the general election. Whether or not he gets the nod—and I’d bet not—he’s getting battered now for his past flirtation with Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, the controversial figure who has called Judaism a “gutter religion.”

While a law student at the University of Minnesota in the late ’80s, Ellison made some anti-Israel and anti-Zionist comments. His supporters want to chalk those up to being young, foolish, and opinionated. But as late as 2010, Ellison argued that American Jews, blindly loyal to Israel, have too much say in the country’s policies in the Middle East.

Ellison, who ten years ago became the first Muslim elected to Congress (Rep. Andre Carson, an Indiana Democrat, makes two) has denied having any anti-Semitic views, and he has the support of Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Harry Reid.

Having the support of Schumer, who is Jewish, should help, but then there’s Rahm, who can claim without hyperbole that “Israel” is his middle name.

When the House Democrats made what I consider the colossal mistake of re-electing Nancy Pelosi their leader last week, her defenders couldn’t deny the fact that the party keeps losing seats under her leadership. They pointed instead to her ability to raise money.

Rahm could do both—lead on picking the right candidates, on organizing and strategizing to get them elected, and on easing the angst of wealthy donors, many of them Jewish, who feel like they wasted their money on Hillary and her dreadfully managed campaign. Not only could Rahm stop defections, he has shown himself capable of persuading people to give much more than they ever imagined they would. As a fundraiser for Rich Daley and then Bill Clinton, Rahm would slam down the phone in profane disgust at targets who thought they were being generous in their pledges only to hear Rahm scream at them that they should be ashamed; that he had expected better, double or even triple as much. It worked, and helped get both Daley and Clinton elected.

Ellison’s elevation to chairman of the party could, on the other hand, amplify the sound of wallets snapping shut. The Wall Street Journal quotes one of party’s biggest donors, Haim Saban, as describing Ellison as “clearly an anti-Semitic and anti-Israel person.”

The other announced contenders for the DNC job are the Democratic state chairmen of South Carolina (Jaime Harrison, an African American) and New Hampshire (Ray Buckley) who have next to no name recognition outside their own states. (Howard Dean, who had been DNC chairman in 2004 to 2008, dropped out on Friday.) Obama and Joe Biden are reportedly trying to recruit Labor Secretary Tom Perez for the job. Ilyse Hogue, president of abortion rights group NARAL, is contemplating a run.

Just as Kellyanne Conway and Corey Lewandowski said repeatedly that the secret to Donald Trump’s success was to “let Trump be Trump,” selecting Rahm to head the DNC would “let Rahm be Rahm”—impatient, arrogant, the bully with Mafioso tendencies who sent a dead fish to a pollster who displeased him; the ruthless win-at-all-costs operative who stabbed a steak knife into a Little Rock restaurant’s wooden table after Clinton’s November 1992 victory, reciting the names of the people who had betrayed him and/or Clinton during the campaign, hissing “Dead!” after each name.

For Rahm, the DNC job might seem like a vacation; he could flee Chicago and travel the country, give speeches, get back on the national stage and the Sunday morning shows. He could drop the monotone, staccato, unnaturally unprofane delivery that always seems one syllable short of an explosion.

Rahm giving up what used to be considered one of the best jobs in politics—mayor of Chicago—to take on the DNC seems like a step down, although one could argue that being mayor of Chicago has turned more grim than fun. Take Gov. Rauner’s veto last week of the $215 million CPS so desperately needs. While the Illinois senate overrode Rauner’s veto, the house is more problematic and Rahm will have to, as more than one political reporter put it, “burn up the phone lines” to get the override votes. Sound like fun?

While Chicagoans still await transparency on Rahm’s emails, he favors his phone. Rahm stands out as a public official unlikely to be done in by his emails.

Keith Ellison pledges to pay attention not only to all 50 states, but to all 3,143 counties. That’s obviously necessary, but, for Rahm, counties are just the start; he’s known for digging down into precincts, even surprising his friend Bill Clinton with his knowledge of the smallest voting blocs. (There’s a thought; he and Bill could team up to take back the country for the Dems; it was, after all, Bill Clinton who warned Hillary’s campaign team that they were losing the white, male working class vote and why weren’t they going to Wisconsin?)

New Jersey Republican Gov. Chris Christie, who once hoped to be Donald Trump’s VP or attorney general or homeland security secretary, is now beseeching Trump to support him as head of the RNC. Reince Priebus is giving up that job to become Trump’s chief of staff—a job that Rahm once held for President Obama. Makes you kind of seasick, but how about the prospect of direct combat between DNC chief Rahm and RNC chief Christie, bullies in battle? It could be such fun to watch.

Maggie Haberman, then writing for Politico, recalled Mayor Rahm in D.C. “mus[ing] about a 2016 presidential run if Hillary Clinton takes a pass.”

DNC chief is not exactly commander in chief, but it’s a start down redemption road.

 
Carol Felsenthal is a lifelong Chicagoan and self-proclaimed political junkie. She writes occasionally for Politico Magazine and The Hill. Her books include biographies of Bill Clinton, Katharine Graham, and Alice Roosevelt Longworth. Among her many stories for Chicago are memorable profiles of Michelle Obama and Bruce Rauner. Follow her on Twitter at @csfelsenthal.

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