Rahm's Precedent for Meddling

Under Clinton, Rahm Emanuel tried to take down Sen. Richard Shelby. It backfired. Now with Obama, he’s targeting David Paterson. Lloyd Grove says if history repeats, Paterson stands to gain.

09.23.09 9:20 AM ET

President Barack Obama’s amazingly awkward attempt to nudge damaged New York Gov. David Paterson out of the race to keep his job—as chronicled in lavish leaks over the weekend by top White House staffers to The New York Times—reminded me of another misstep by a different rookie administration.

It turns out that Paterson, a liberal African American from Harlem, shares a surprising kinship with Sen. Richard Shelby, a conservative white Republican from Alabama: Both have been targeted for extinction by Rahm Emanuel. If history is any guide, Paterson—just like Shelby—might benefit from the experience.

Front-page newspaper stories might reward the vanity of interested parties, but they seldom work out well in the end.

Back in early 1993, President Bill Clinton and his operatives were mightily ticked off at Shelby, then a centrist Democrat. The Clinton White House had just introduced its controversial economic stimulus package, and pleaded with skeptics like Shelby to hold their fire for at least three days. But the senator rushed before the television cameras, anyway, to declare: “The tax man cometh.” Then he publicly embarrassed Al Gore, dumping on the package some more during what was supposed to have been a conciliatory photo op. Gore was peeved.

So the Clintonistas, with Rahm at the helm, decided they’d make Shelby pay. They announced via The Washington Post (where I was a political reporter) that this was one White House you messed with at your peril. Several “senior aides” got on the phone with me to crow about all the bad things they were doing to punish the insubordinate senator—from relocating 90 NASA jobs from Alabama to Texas to denying him tickets to a South Lawn ceremony honoring the University of Alabama football team.

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Emanuel—then White House political director, and now President Obama’s chief of staff—eagerly quarterbacked the revenge play. Shelby milked it for all it was worth, casting himself as a courageous independent who couldn’t be muzzled or pushed around. There were two unintended consequences: 1) The senator’s home-state popularity, already robust, shot through the roof; and 2) After the Democrats lost the House and Senate in the next year’s disastrous midterms, Shelby switched parties.

Sixteen years later, Rahm seems to have forgotten the lesson of Shelby’s Teachable Moment. Apparently Emanuel and White House political director Patrick Gaspard—a former top official of the anti-Paterson hospital workers union and a wizened veteran of New York politics—are not only trying to force the governor out of the Democratic primary race in favor of state attorney general Andrew Cuomo (a close friend of Gaspard’s), they also wanted The Times to spread the word. As with the Shelby experience, front-page newspaper stories might reward the vanity of interested parties, but they seldom work out well in the end.

So far Paterson is handling the situation just right—and in true Shelby-esque fashion. At a press conference Tuesday, the governor defiantly vowed: “Clearly I’m running for re-election,” and also took some shots at the White House that drew blood. He needled his tormenters for alleged political impotence. “I understand the president’s concern and I understand concern of staff members at the White House. If you look at it from their perspective, they haven’t exactly been able to govern in the first year of their administration in the way that other administrations have, where you would have, theoretically, a period in which the new administration is allowed to pass the needed pieces of legislation.”

Celebrating a rare victory—a long-awaited court decision affirming his right to appoint Richard Ravitch as lieutenant governor—Paterson summoned the fighting spirit of Winston Churchill (of whom he is a student). “You don’t give up,” he declared. “You don’t give up because people tell you what they think is going to happen. You don’t give up because people tell you who’s running and who’s not before they ever announce to do it. You don’t give up because you’re unpopular when you feel you’ve made the right decisions and when people get a chance to look at what you’re up against and reflect on it. And if you keep the attitude that you don’t give up, you may get to prove people, when the final tabulation is in, that you were doing the right thing. And that’s what happened with the court decision today.”

There’s no doubt that Paterson has been struggling through a lousy economy, intractable budget deficits and a recalcitrant legislature, and that his poll numbers are in the basement largely because of his own mistakes. His campaign to keep his job is, at best, a long shot.

But this week he showed some pluck and generated some sympathy for himself. New York’s political class has its nose out of joint about the Obama White House’s meddling. “Butt out,” Rep. Charlie Rangel advised in today’s New York Daily News.

“For the White House to be trying to push him out, that leaves a bad taste in the mouths of a good many New Yorkers,” says longtime Democratic political consultant Hank Sheinkopf. “They might not like the governor, but it’s their job to get rid of him, not the White House’s. And sure, this might help him.”

In the land of the short-sighted, is it possible that the blind man is king?

Lloyd Grove is Editor at Large for The Daily Beast. He is also a frequent contributor to New York magazine and was a contributing editor for Condé Nast Portfolio. He wrote a gossip column for the New York Daily News from 2003 to 2006. Prior to that, he wrote the Reliable Source column for the Washington Post, where he spent 23 years covering politics, the media, and other subjects.