Next month, Rahm Emanuel will hand over the mayoralty to a successor who better reflects the progressivism of the 21st Century Democratic Party.
Meanwhile, he's developing a new side gig: warning Democrats about the dangers of 21st Century progressivism, on cable TV and in the pixels of The Atlantic, the online version of the magazine founded by Ralph Waldo Emerson. In fact, he's racked up 11 bylines in the publication since announcing he wouldn't run for a third term in September.
As Emanuel angles for relevance in his post-political life, he seems to be hoping there’s a demand for one last defender of the neoliberalism that defined his career — a voice to warn his party against the perils of socialism.
In March, Emanuel went on TV to tsk tsk House freshmen Ilhan Omar and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, two crazy kids he believes are imperiling the Democrats’ chance to win in Middle America with their calls for universal Medicare and a Green New Deal.
Emanuel represents a deep blue Chicago and is against a Green New Deal and Medicare for All – so what's his excuse? pic.twitter.com/SdwnwWXU2y
— Justice Democrats (@justicedems) 15 March 2019
Pointing out that senators from Nebraska cast key votes in passing Bill Clinton’s first budget and Obamacare, Emanuel told MSNBC (emphasis ours):
“It is important to have the energy that some of the freshmen members are bringing, but you should remember, there’s a big country out there, with a lot of diversity, and we want Dems from all parts of the country. I don’t think you should be putting congressional members who won out of marginal districts [in a position] where they have to be responding to [what] a person who was out of Queens or out of Minnesota, suburban Minneapolis, is saying.”
Actually, Minnesota is in the middle of the country. So is Chicago, where six socialists were just elected to the City Council, part of a backlash against Emanuel’s corporate-focused governance.
The Middle America that Emanuel seem to be concerned about is suburbia. It's the ground between the Dems’ urban strongholds and the Republicans’ rural base, and it turned against Trump in the 2018 midterms.
If the Democrats unite city and suburb, Emanuel wrote in The Atlantic, they can form a “Metropolitan Majority” that will defeat Trump. One of his recommendations for doing so: “on health care, it’s time for Democrats to move their focus from expanding coverage to controlling costs.”
In other words, no Medicare for All – even though freshman Democratic Rep. Lauren Underwood, who flipped a suburban Chicago district last year, has declared herself a proponent of universal health care.
As a child of the Cold War, Emanuel remembers when Ronald Reagan portrayed Democrats as soft on Communism. He fears that the growing socialist movement in today’s party could lead to another round of red-baiting. Here’s what he wrote in a different Atlantic essay, titled “How Democrats Can Beat Trump”:
"Tonight,” the president said in his State of the Union address, “we renew our resolve that America will never be a socialist country.” That was a tell. Trump’s going to spend the next two years using the bully pulpit to convince voters that Democrats are big believers in “government coercion, domination, and control.” He’s making a bet that if he labels Democrats “socialists” frequently enough, he’ll be able to drive a wedge that scares swing voters out of the Democratic fold.
If 2016 proved nothing else, it demonstrated that Democrats ignore Trump’s antics at our own peril. In much the same way Democrats shouldn’t paint his supporters with a brush so broad that it alienates convincible voters — anyone else game to banish the word deplorable from the 2020 campaign? — the last thing we should do is serve him slow pitches over the plate that allow him to define us on his terms. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what Democrats have been doing since he went before Congress in early February. It’s almost as if we’ve been duped into reading from his ready-made script.
This is actually an age-old conflict between Emanuel and the left wing of the Democratic Party, which has long regarded him as more focused on power than principle.
In 2006, Emanuel helmed the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which recruits candidates to run in close races. In that role, he sought out moderate and conservative Democrats to run in red states, more concerned that they shared their hometown’s values than the national party’s.
In the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, Emanuel found Heath Shuler, a former Washington Redskins quarterback who cut ads about his devotion to family, church, and prayer. In southern Indiana, it was Brad Ellsworth, an antiabortion, anti–gun control sheriff. Both were succeeded by Republicans after leaving the House.
“Emanuel … delighted in finding candidates who fit the manly mold — military veterans, police officers, pilots,” wrote former Chicago Tribune reporter Naftali Bendavid in his book The Thumpin’, an account of how Emanuel led House Democrats to their first majority in 12 years.
Many liberal bloggers, meanwhile, saw Emanuel as a triangulating sellout, an unprincipled hack making a reflexive, misguided rush for the center. They were committed to winning too, but they also wanted to draw a sharp distinction between Democrats and Republicans. Livid at Emanuel's statement that the party would take a position on Iraq “at the right time,” they “lashed out at the DCCC for representing a muddle-headed centrism that would never rescue the Democrats or reignite the sweeping populism the country badly needed,” Bendavid wrote.
As a political operative, Emanuel came of age in the era of Bill Clinton’s Democratic Leadership Council, which was designed to position Democrats as a moderate, free market party — a response to the Republicans’ dominance of the 1980s. That philosophy worked then, but today it's as much a relic of the ’90s as dial-up modems. (By encouraging banking deregulation, it also helped create the conditions for young Democrats' turn to socialism.)
Emanuel now seems like a timid incrementalist afraid of offending the proverbial mother of three in Yorkville. He's less interested in ideology than he is a strategy to get to 51 percent. (His “Axe Files” interview with David Axelrod, in which the two old pros talk shop at Manny’s Deli, is so depressing for this very reason.)
Granted, Emanuel has never lost an election. But as he shops himself around to cable networks, he’s offering an uninspiring message from the party’s past. William F. Buckley once defined a conservative as “someone who stands athwart history, yelling stop.” By that definition, Emanuel is a conservative. He couldn’t hold back history in Chicago, and he won’t be able to do it to the nation, either.