Suddenly the disgraced and demoralized Republican Congress has an unearned future, thanks to the superhuman clumsiness of a man who has made himself indispensable to the Obama administration and insufferable to the Democratic Congress, chief of staff Rahm Emanuel.
The GOP always knew that Emanuel was a problem that could not be solved and could only be endured while he served three tempestuous terms in the House. But now the beleaguered Democratic majority is learning painfully that Emanuel’s talents for bullying, whimsical favoritism, cheerful power-grabbing, and self-congratulatory earthiness have transformed the first hundred days of the Obama administration’s seamless accomplishment into a second hundred days of blame and gloom.
First, Emanuel used frontman Senator Max Baucus (D-Mont.), the Finance Committee chair, to ditch the health-care public option, while sending President Obama to speak softly at dinner at the home of prickly Senator Charles Grassley (R-Grant Wood). The latest Emanuel co-authored ploy—forcing health-care legislation through in the fall with Democratic-only votes—underlines that the White House has become as deaf, daring, and driven as the fabled Democratic machines of Tammany Hall or Emanuel’s own Cook County, where he was a once and future fundraiser for the Daleys.“We suck,” a blunt Republican partisan reports, “but they suck more right now.”
“I saw one [Democratic] member walk up to him and ask, ‘So how did you make $18 million in an afternoon sitting at a table in Chicago?’ And Rahm just turned and walked away. It gets to him.”
Polling supports this cynical summary. The still lifeless Republicans, who have avoided any credible renovation or even contrition for their decades of swinishness, now enjoy their largest generic lead over the Democrats in years. Trusted touts like Charlie Cook speak of a Democratic loss of at least 20 seats in the House. Republican Party fundraising is up, Republican recruitment is up—even in blue New Hampshire, where a potential loss of Judd Gregg’s U.S. Senate seat is now a likely win with the recruiting of the popular Attorney General Kelly Ayotte—and the GOP’s cheeks have a glow not related to shame.
“It’s Rahm,” a Republican partisan tells me. “The cowardly, brain-dead Republicans are claiming they’ve done something. But it’s Rahm. If Rahm goes, the Dems will not do worse. But it might be hard to undo the damage.”
Like the gifted and overwrought Maximilien de Robespierre once upon a time, Rahm Emanuel has taken control of a revolutionary movement he did not help create nor much contribute to while it was gathering strength under the oppression of the ancien régime of George W. Bush. And just like Robespierre, Emanuel has turned the president’s kitchen cabinet of trusted ex-campaign workers, led by David Axelrod (whose ex-PR firm has enjoyed $12 million in fees so far from fronts controlled by the administration-directed Democratic National Committee), Mark Lippert, and Denis McDonough (a dynamic duo of hatchetmen on the National Security Council), into a Committee for Public Safety that terrorizes Washington’s royals willy-nilly.
The victims are everywhere, and the Republicans know best how brilliantly brutal Emanuel’s methods can be. “Rahm puts people on a string,” a cautious Republican told me. “He did it to Dennis [Hastert, former speaker of the House]. We always knew Rahm had something on him. Maybe it was earmarks. Maybe it was something like classic car-flipping. Dennis never went after Rahm and never allowed us to go after him.”
Emanuel’s methods in the House are now writ large throughout the government. Not one of the House Democrats is suicidal enough to push back in public against what amounts to his extortion and protection racket for each successive piece of partisan legislation—witness the 219 beaten-up votes for cap and trade in the House, or the pummeled Blue Dogs during the health-care brouhaha during recess. One Democratic wag comments that Rahm Emanuel is to the Blue Dogs what Michael Vick was to pit bulls. In the beginning he feeds them steak, then they get torn apart.
However, the Republicans are not as gun-shy—though none is unwise enough to reveal his own name—since they have no financing to have ripped from them; and some Republicans point to the strange quiet of GOP House Minority Whip Eric Cantor as evidence that he may be a victim of Emanuel’s Black Hand style.
After his TARP-supporting apostasy under the Bush ancien régime, Cantor begged forgiveness of his caucus to win the Whip job and was excited to oppose the aggressive White House in its first hundred days, taking pride of place in the Party of No against the stimulus package and the budget. But then Cantor rolled over, advocating to the Republican caucus that it avoid direct attacks on the administration and embrace the fashion of bipartisanship and compromise. In May, Cantor even tried a laughable bipartisan tour with Republican has-beens like Jeb Bush and Newt Gingrich (no Democrats showed up) called the National Council for a New America.
What happened? “We think it’s Rahm,” says one Republican who watched the whodunit. “Cantor backed off right after articles ran in his district about Cantor’s wife working for a TARP bank.”
Cantor went so far as to vote for the wild legislation punishing AIG and TARP-bank bonuses with confiscatory taxes that few other Republicans regarded as sane. “We couldn’t understand that vote,” was one comment, “unless it was Rahm.”
Emanuel’s ambitious Committee for Public Safety in the White House, tightly disciplined, indifferent to all Cabinet secretaries including State and Defense, is not limited to sowing fear on Capitol Hill. There are multiple, detailed reports of Rahm Emanuel-authored or -delivered threats to the Netanyahu government in Jerusalem, to the Maliki government in Baghdad, to the Brown government at 10 Downing Street, and now to the Karzai government in Kabul that is entangled in massive voting fraud. A fresh report of a “profanity-laced screaming match” at the White House involving the formerly mild-mannered CIA director Leon Panetta, an Emanuel appointee (as a reward for protecting Emanuel as Clinton chief of staff after Emanuel’s multiple screw-ups in the Clinton White House), points directly to the Emanuel style of extreme persuasion even in national security policy—though Emanuel’s bona fides in diplomacy are a 1991 vacation camp program in Israel volunteering to sing songs and stand around at Israel Defense Force bases with teenagers when he was 31 years old.
Emanuel’s other claim to critical national policy is based on how he got rich in a few dozen months’ work with Bruce Wasserstein in the Chicago office of Wasserstein Perella & Co. as it was being acquired by Deutsche Bank, putting together a merger involving the Chicago-based Exelon Corporation that was also one of Axelrod’s biggest PR accounts and financed Obama’s political career. Emanuel is said to be thrillingly defensive about this episode between his time at the Clinton White House in 1999 and his win of the Democratic primary for the Illinois House seat to replace Rod Blagojevich, a former mentor, in 2002.
Recalled an entertained Republican, “I saw one [Democratic] member walk up to him and ask, ‘So how did you make $18 million in an afternoon sitting at a table in Chicago?’ And Rahm just turned and walked away. It gets to him.”
Just now, Emanuel’s unusually good fortune in Chicago in making $18 million in a very short time may be the only thing on the planet that gets to him. A twist of fate is that as Emanuel’s authority and ambition grow, reaching for swift closure to foreign commitments, staging bipartisan fantasy cruises, then reaching to construct Democratic-only laws that turn the theory of checks and balances into an unlimited credit card on the Treasury, the polling points not only to a rising tide of facedown Republicans but also to a sinking approval rating for a president who entirely controls Emanuel’s fate. Is there a lesson in the detail that the French Revolution waited too long to turn on Robespierre’s ruthless genius, and by the time the guillotine fell, the ludicrously reactionary aristocracy had rallied throughout Europe and led a counterrevolution that swept liberty into the ditch for another lifetime?
John Batchelor is radio host of the John Batchelor Show in New York, Washington, D.C., San Francisco, and Los Angeles.