A while back a couple smart Chicagoans I follow on Twitter—one a politics writer, one a veteran of Barack Obama's tech staff—got into an argument about whether we collectively should have realized that Rahm Emanuel would not be a particularly progressive mayor.
Nothing particularly unusual about that; it's been happening since Emanuel announced he was running for the position. On one hand, Emanuel was Obama's chief of staff, and even with the president's ups and downs, a lot of progressive, liberal Democrats still view the president favorably, though certainly not all. And that brought him a lot of goodwill when running for mayor in the president's hometown.
On the other, Emanuel has been a bete noir for many progressive, liberal Democrats for years. Last March, Heather Digby Parton, a stalwart of the liberal blogosphere for many years, described one vein of the netroots opinion of Emanuel back in the day:
Back in 2006 when all this really started to come together there was one Democrat who quickly determined that this nascent progressive movement was a major threat to the status quo. His name was Rahm Emanuel who was, at the time, an Illinois congressman in charge of candidate recruitment for the congressional Democrats. If there’s anyone who can take credit for being the catalyst for this long term Netroots commitment to elect progressives to congress it is him. His crude dismissal of grassroots concerns was blatant. His contempt for anyone who disagreed with his centrist Blue Dog/New Democrat philosophy was palpable. While his wholehearted support for big money interests was seen as the ultimate in strategic brilliance by the beltway elites, it repelled Democratic activists everywhere.
The Nation's Ari Berman, who wrote a book about the Democratic Party under the tenure of Emanuel (as head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee) and Howard Dean (as head of the Democratic National Committee), argued that the ideological sacrifices the party made to build a supermajority in the late 2000s with the election of conservative Southern "Blue Dog" Democrats, was actually counterproductive:
Their conservative contingent has so blurred what it means to be a Democrat that the party itself can barely find its way. Polls show that, despite their best efforts to distance themselves from Speaker Pelosi and President Obama, a number of Blue Dog Democrats are likely to be defeated this November. Their conservative voting records have deflated Democratic activists but have done nothing to win Republican support.
But… it's politics, and it's complicated. There were prominent netroots progressives who were tentatively willing to work with Emanuel, like Daily Kos founder Markos Moulitsas, as Joshua Green found in 2005:
A certified member of the Beltway establishment, and a political centrist to boot, [Emanuel] favors incremental, family-friendly policies in the Clinton mode: tax breaks to help the middle class pay for college, incentives to encourage workers to save for retirement, re-importing drugs to lower prescription costs. He has sharply criticized the president's handling of the war in Iraq, but he doesn't agree with those who say we should pull out immediately, favoring a more gradual withdrawal based on "benchmarks" for training Iraqi troops.
Yet Emanuel has received generally positive reviews from the increasingly noisy—and powerful—grass roots of the Democratic Party. As leader of the DCCC, he has struck a fragile truce with the heavily liberal blogosphere and organizations such as MoveOn.org. Emanuel has hosted four "blog calls" with the pre-eminent liberal bloggers, going over congressional races and sharing DCCC strategy in an effort to bring the activist community into the fold….
For their part, bloggers and grass-roots activists support Emanuel in no small part because they hope his combativeness will rub off on his more timid colleagues. "He understands the importance of having a good relationship with Net roots," says Markos Moulitsas, who runs the influential blog Daily Kos. "If nothing else, he knows that we exist and it's not as confrontational a relationship as we had with past DCCC regimes." Nor is Moulitsas put off by Emanuel's centrist politics. "We don't give a shit," he says. "I think there's growing understanding that we can't sit and fixate on who's a moderate and who's a liberal when we're in the minority. We can worry about that when we're in the majority."
In short, it's been understandably difficult to pinpoint what Emanuel would do as the mayor of Chicago—a position known for its near absolute power—because he's spent much of his life as a political operative navigating the internecine battles of the Democratic party. He did a lot of things progressives didn't like in the Clinton and Obama administrations, but he was working at the behest of presidents. He made ideological sacrifices towards the right as head of the DCCC, but he was attempting to piece together a majority, which was successful by the numbers if not necessarily in practice.
So I wondered what it would look like if you tried to isolate his political actions where he theoretically had more autonomy—as an actual voting member of the House of Representatives. And there are powerful tools to do this: DW-NOMINATE scores and GovTrack's Ideology Score, both measures of where politicians fall on a left-right spectrum.
So I took all the scores, for both systems, of all the Democrats in the House for the 110th Congress (thanks to my colleague Luke Seemann for the visual). That was Emanuel's last term, ending in 2009, in which he represented the state's 5th District, a safe Democratic seat with a Cook Partisan Voting Index Score of D+18, meaning the district votes 18 percentage points more Democratic than the nation as a whole.
Where did Rahm fall on the spectrum? Dead center among the Democratic Party.
DW Ideology Scale
Govtrack Ideology Scale
Among Illinois Democratic representatives, Emanuel was very slightly to the right of center. The median DW-NOMINATE score for the state's 11 Democratic reps was -0.373, and Emanuel's was -0.342, where a lower score is more liberal (Bobby Rush, Luis Gutierrez, Danny Davis, Jan Schakowsky, and Jesse Jackson, Jr. all had scores of -0.4 or lower).
The median GovTrack score was .222 and Emanuel's was .269, where a lower score is, again, more liberal. Again, Emanuel landed to the right of Rush, Gutierrez, Davis, Schakowsky, and Jackson.
Emanuel was to the left of several Illinois Democrats—but ones in vulnerable seats. Emanuel was to the left of Bill Foster, who was beaten by Republican Randy Hultgren in 2010. He was to the left of Jerry Costello; Republican Mike Bost would eventually win that district. He was to the left of Blue Dog caucus member Melissa Bean; she lost an upset to the infamous Joe Walsh. And Emanuel was to the left of Dan Lipinski, who has managed to hold onto his seat, but who is also a notably conservative Democrat, being pro-life (he voted against the Affordable Care Act because of abortion issues) and against gay marriage; he didn't endorse Obama's re-election in 2012.
So what to make of Emanuel's voting record? Again, it's really hard. He was right in the middle of the national party. Closer to home, he was to the right of some stalwart liberals; he was to the left of several of his Illinois Democratic peers, but ones in districts that would swing right, leaving all but the relatively conservative Lipinski vulnerable as the big tent he helped design as head of the DCCC started to collapse. Maybe the only clear conclusion is this: It makes a lot of sense that people are still arguing what we should have known about Rahm Emanuel.