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Why Rahm Can’t Shake Reaganism

Emanuel’s first big win, as Bill Clinton’s finance director, was as a moderate. Caution, not courage, is part of his political DNA.

Emanuel and Clinton in 2015   Photo: Phil Velasquez/Chicago Tribune

Tommy Douglas, the Canadian politician who brought his country universal health care, had a famous saying: “Courage, my friends; ’tis not too late to build a better world.”

Rahm Emanuel, the American politician who talked his boss out of a public option for Obamacare, has a different philosophy: Let’s not get carried away with this idealism stuff; the world is working pretty well for me as it is.

Last week, Emanuel appeared on CNBC, offering unsolicited advice to Joe Biden’s presidential campaign.

“Two things I would say if I was advising an administration,” Emanuel said. “One is there’s no new Green Deal, there’s no Medicare For All, probably the single two topics that were discussed the most. That’s not even in the platform.”

Emanuel compared this year’s election to 1980’s, the first in which he was old enough to vote. Ronald Reagan won with the support of a new breed of voter: “Reagan Democrats,” Southerners and Northern white ethnic voters who eventually became permanent fixtures in the Republican coalition.

“This will be the year of the Biden Republican,” Emanuel predicted. Then he added, “My view is you don’t want this to be a transactional election. You want this to be the opportunity of a transformational election.”

The 1980 election was transformational, but not in the way Emanuel is talking about. If you listened to his 2018 appearance on David Axelrod’s Axe Files (recorded live at Manny’s Deli), you would have heard a political hack more obsessed with acquiring power than using it to improve the lives of Americans. Rahm talked endlessly about the constituencies Democrats needed to attract to win fifty percent of the vote, plus one — suburban women, union members, Ohioans — but he didn’t talk much about what he wanted to do for them.

Ronald Reagan did not win the 1980 election by campaigning as a moderate. He was, for those times, a hard-right conservative: a tax-cutting Cold Warrior whose opponents believed he would bankrupt the country and plunge the world into nuclear war. Jimmy Carter considered Reagan an ideal opponent, because he would scare the crap out of moderate voters. Reagan had begun his political career as a supporter of Barry Goldwater, who lost the 1964 presidential election in a landslide because he scared the crap out of moderate voters.

Reagan’s views never changed, but the country did. In 1980, he had the good fortune to run against Carter, an incumbent most Americans had concluded was incompetent.

Reagan, whose motto was “government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem,” used his victory to transform the relationship between the American people and the federal government. He cut taxes on the wealthy, increased military spending, cut government regulations and withdrew protections for labor unions. Essentially, Reagan ended the New Deal assumptions on which the country had been run for 50 years.

The Reagan Revolution created the moderate instincts that Rahm Emanuel can’t seem to shake. In 1992, a year Emanuel referred to as “my time” in the CNBC interview, the Democrats were coming off a streak of three consecutive landslide defeats. They were seen as an impractical left-wing party that coddled Communists and criminals. (This Saturday Night Live sketch, “Dukakis After Dark,” which aired just before the 1988 election, parodies that image.)

Bill Clinton was a moderate Southern Baby Boomer who ended the Democrats’ losing streak by coming to terms with the changes Reaganism had wrought on the country. As president, Clinton cut welfare benefits and declared, “The era of big government is over.” Rahm Emanuel was Clinton’s finance director. Emanuel’s first big win was as a moderate, and that’s the only way he knows how to play the game. The guy can’t help himself. Caution, not courage, is part of his political DNA.

On Monday, POLITICO published an article headlined, “Donald Trump Isn’t Richard Nixon. He’s Jimmy Carter.” Like Reagan, Biden is in the position of running against an unpopular bungler who has proven unable to deal with the major crisis of his administration. Biden doesn’t have to temporize to win, or to govern. He has adopted the Green New Deal as part of his platform. He hasn’t adopted Medicare For All, but he wants to lower the age of eligibility to 60.

Meanwhile, Rahm Emanuel grows increasingly irrelevant in his political afterlife. His 1990s triangulations are out of touch with a younger generation that wants changes in racial and economic relations.

It could be worse for the Democrats, though. He could still be in politics. Emanuel’s original goal was to be the first Jewish speaker of the House. Had he not stepped off that path to become Obama’s chief of staff, then mayor of Chicago, he would probably be high up in House leadership, trying to put the brakes on bills that would fight climate change and expand access to health care.

Chicago took Rahm off the Democratic Party’s hands. They really should thank us.

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