Rahm Is an Ass-Kicker—But Don’t Confuse His Personality With His Politics

He may have a ferocious reputation for political hardball, but Rahmbo’s political history is defined by cautious compromise.

Photo: José M. Osorio/Chicago Tribune

On a day when Chicago began to emerge from the long shadow of the Shakman federal-clout-monitoring decree, the most-read story at the Trib’s site was that… Rahm Emanuel yelled at someone. You’d think it would be filed under sports and weather on the 8s, but at least it’s charmingly European:

“What I know for a fact is that (Emanuel) gave the ambassador some words, ‘a dressing down’, with respect to this,” Wetland said, according to The Local. “The word ‘fawning’ was used.”

The word ‘fawning’ was used. [Monocle drops to the floor.]

“This,” not incidentally, refers to the inexplicable awarding of the Nobel peace prize to Barack Obama a couple weeks into his presidency. So not only was the messenger not particularly notable, the message was sensible. But there’s an inexhaustible appetite for stories of Rahm dressing people down, usually with more pungent words.

It’s a bit perplexing, but in a widely discussed editorial by the Trib’s Kristen McQueary, she may have put her finger on it:

Many of us will take an ass-kicker who gets results over a cautious consensus-builder any day of the week.

That’s why Chicago voters picked Rahm Emanuel for mayor in 2011. They liked his rascally persona: the dead fish delivered to a pollster who disappointed him, the shower confrontation with an uncooperative member of Congress, the reported, “Take your (expletive) tampon out and tell me what you have to say” to a male White House staffer who wasn’t on point.

The strutting. The finger-pointing. The swearing. Come on. We loved it.

McQueary is frustrated that the rascally ass-kicker has turned out to be an incrementalist at heart, and she’s apparently not the only person dissatisfied with his performance.

But ass-kicking and swearing is a tool, not an ideology or a platform. You can kick an infinite amount of ass in the service of an incremental agenda. You can, in fact, kick ass in order to build a politically cautious consensus.

And Rahm Emanuel has a very long history of doing just that.

Nor do you have to go back very far. When Rahm and his brother Zeke were both drafted into the creation of Obama’s nascent health-care initiative, Rahm was trying to rein in its scope. Even if you think the Affordable Care Act is a frustrating political compromise between universal care and the for-profit health industry, what Rahm wanted was narrower still (but politically much more saleable):

Back at the White House, a debate over whether to proceed with comprehensive reform was playing out one more time. Rahm Emanuel was, once again, proposing to find a quick deal on a smaller bill that would insure just kids. And he wasn’t just talking it up internally. He’d discussed the idea with members of Congress, and, in February, The Wall Street Journal published a story about it. Whether Rahm was merely exploring the option or actively shopping it, Pelosi thought all the talk of an “eensy weensy bill,” as she called it, was undermining her efforts. She told the administration she needed Rahm to cease and desist.

Around the same time, Rahm was dressing down Eric Holder, with a much more pointed f-word, in the name of cautious compromise:

“Emanuel was furious. He slammed his desk and cursed the attorney general. Holder was only repeating a position Obama had expressed during the campaign, but that was before the White House needed the backing of pro-gun Democrats from red states for their domestic agenda. The chief of staff sent word to Justice that Holder needed to ‘shut the fuck up’ on guns…”

Which echoed his strategy in pushing through the assault-weapons ban as a Clinton aide:

Rahm Emanuel, the hard-charging White House senior adviser, engineered the main strategy: shove provisions favored by conservatives (more death penalty and prisons) and those fancied by liberals (gun control and rehabilitation programs) into a single package, and the $25 billion-plus bill would have a shot of success.

Welfare reform? Emanuel moved the White House to the right to “end welfare as we know it,” “rolling all over” the legendary Daniel Patrick Moynihan in the process of forging compromises with the GOP.  NAFTA “pitted friend against friend and allied the Administration with Republicans and Big Business,” with Rahm as the “enforcer”—under the wing of Bill Daley.

As mayor of a city where the mayor usually gets his way, Emanuel may have less need to broker compromise than as a presidential aide facing aggressive GOP opposition, as he did under both Clinton and Obama. But politicians are the sum of their experiences, and in all of Emanuel’s signature achievements in the White House, his method was to engineer ideologically frustrating but politically palatable (and viable) compromises. Sometimes, as seems to be the case with the Affordable Care Act, these plans included more compromise than was, in retrospect, necessary.

The Rahmbo stories are amusing, and the pace of his politics is undeniable. But kicking ass doesn’t mean knocking people and policies head over heels—you can kick asses in order to get them to move just a bit.

 

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