There are, we are told, two kinds of congressional elections. In most even-numbered years, the issues are local and only a few incumbents are vulnerable, usually for reasons unique to them or their districts. Occasionally, as in 1994, an election is decided on national issues and a strong partisan or ideological wave loosens the bonds between even the hardest-working members of Congress and their constituents, and new members are swept in on essentially identical messages.
Last year’s election was something a little different, a national wave on one level but an intensely local election on another, in which each Democratic victory took advantage of the particular circumstances of each challenger, each incumbent, and each district.
The Democrats’ mastery of that unusual combination is the work of one man, Rep. Rahm Emanuel, chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee during the year described by Chicago Tribune reporter Naftali Bendavid in his new book, The Thumpin’: How Rahm Emanuel and the Democrats Learned to Be Ruthless and Ended the Republican Revolution. The DCCC chair is typically just a recruiter and fund-raiser in chief for candidates, charged with bullying his colleagues to use the power of their incumbency to raise money for a narrowly targeted set of challengers. Emanuel was all but bred for the job as traditionally defined (he was even a DCCC fund-raiser in his youth), but he turned the job into something else, acting as a strategist for each campaign and expanding the number of targeted races. His role is best captured in a metaphor employed by former White House press secretary Dee Dee Myers: “Here comes this tidal wave, and Rahm has them all in sturdy little boats ready to row to shore.”
Another way to think of the difference between 2006 and the last truly nationalized election is this: the architect of the 1994 Republican victory, Newt Gingrich, communicated with his candidates by disseminating cassette tapes of his lectures, and memos listing words to use to describe any Democratic opponent. Emanuel operated instead by cell phone, maintaining almost constant two-way contact with all his promising candidates, listening as well as directing. Even at the first stage, in recruiting candidates, for example, Emanuel would target those who hesitated to run because they had young children, calling them constantly just to say, “I’m at a soccer game with my kids,” or “I’m at a kindergarten play.”
On such anecdotes—many of them involving a cell phone, sometimes being shouted into or thrown—is the legend of Rahm Emanuel built. At one point, he is described as “the Jewish LBJ,” and a book about someone who could be called the Jewish LBJ practically writes itself. I won’t spoil this thoroughly enjoyable book by stealing the best anecdotes in a review, so I’ll mention one that he doesn’t include: as a twenty-five-year-old working on Senator Paul Simon’s first campaign, Emanuel was known as “the nuclear fund-raiser,” and colleagues would gather to eavesdrop on him loudly accusing elderly Jewish donors of betraying the state of Israel if they failed to max out, in their grandchildren’s names as well as their own, to Simon’s campaign. Apparently the strategy worked.
But that alone is not sufficient explanation for Emanuel’s achievement in 2006. Screaming, cursing, winning-is-everything political operatives are a dime a dozen in Washington. Screamers, swearers, nuclear fund-raisers, and would-be LBJs are at the top of losing campaigns as well as winning ones. (According to Bendavid, Emanuel’s Republican counterpart, Rep. Tom Reynolds, also likened himself to LBJ.) Far more interesting in The Thumpin’ are the hints of an Emanuel who is—like the real LBJ—deeper and more complicated than someone who just wants to win for the sake of winning. One catches a glimpse of something a little different, a sense of restraint and of purpose that makes Emanuel seem to be a much fuller and more interesting character than he appears on the surface—and probably bears as much responsibility for the Democrats’ victory as his louder traits.
This is the Emanuel who purposefully refuses to answer his cell phone after Tom DeLay’s indictment if he suspects that the caller is going to want a comment on DeLay’s troubles, because he doesn’t want to get drawn into the story at all, and who similarly holds back, and holds his candidates back, when news of Rep. Mark Foley’s seedy instant-message exchange with a House page breaks.
When a promising candidate in Ohio botches his ballot petitions and is forced to run as a write-in candidate in the primary, this Emanuel, while furious at the need to spend money in an unnecessary primary, says, “I think he needs some issues,” to center him and get his mind off his screw-up. And that is what makes Emanuel a little different from, say, former Democratic National Committee chair Terry MacAuliffe: he understands that politics has to be about something, and more than just a vague statement of values. After Emanuel was demoted from his position as political director early in the first Clinton administration, Clinton let him return to manage the efforts to pass the North American Free Trade Agreement and the crime bill, two measures that required far more than bullying and swearing to get passed. Emanuel was among the first Democrats to appreciate the need for fundamental tax reform, and he appears from this book to be among the most aggressive in pushing for the Democrats to have a more coherent policy agenda than they had in previous cycles.
In his appreciation of policy, he resembles Bush adviser Karl Rove, except that Rove’s view of the relationship between policy and politics is direct—policy employed as an instrument of political tactics—whereas Emanuel’s is far more nuanced, seeing policy as a kind of moral center to the experience of politics.
The Thumpin’ ends weakly, though, like a bad Robert Altman movie, with a party scene: election night at DCCC headquarters. Nancy Pelosi arrives, hugs Emanuel, mutters, “I’ve got to call my brother,” and leaves. Former Rep. Vic Fazio, who chaired the DCCC in the 1994 cycle, arrives and thanks Emanuel for getting “this huge monkey”responsibility for twelve years of Republican control“off my back.” Like other awkward passages in the book, this vignette seems intended merely to show that the author was In The Room, something which could have been established more efficiently by using the word “I” once in a while.
What’s missing is any kind of distanced perspective on Emanuel’s accomplishment or the choices he made along the way. Bendavid mentions, and abruptly dismisses, the critique of liberal bloggers and writers such as John Nichols of the Nation who claim that Democrats won despite Emanuel, not because of him, and that he should have done more to support strong antiwar candidates. True, it is the extreme of arrogance for someone who’s never run a single campaign to suggest that he could have done better than Emanuel, especially given that the scale of Democratic victory was unimaginable until late last summer. But it should at least be interesting for an author who’s spent a year covering Emanuel to consider why some of his most heavily recruited and overfunded candidates lost, while several others who actually defeated Emanuel’s picks in the primary, and were written off as too liberal for their districts—notably John Yarmuth of Kentucky and Carol Shea-Porter of New Hampshire—were the surprise winners on November 7.
Here’s my take on the perspective missing from The Thumpin’: The rules of politics are changing rapidly. There’s an appetite for clear statements of position, whether on the war or economic inequality, and more room to bring in new voters and new ideas. Rahm Emanuel, the finest practitioner of politics under the old rules—the Clinton rules—started to understand this. He understood that he had to “open up the map,” for example, and bring robust challenges in more districts than previous DCCC chairs. On his own, Emanuel got halfway there. Pushed by circumstances—by being on the road and listening; by candidates like Harry Mitchell in Arizona, who emerged on his own and then got Emanuel’s attention; by the need to compromise with Howard Dean’s fifty-state strategy; and by liberal bloggers, who did get Emanuel’s ear—he went even further, resisting the pull back in the old, narrowing direction from Clinton-era operatives such as James Carville. Could he have gone even further, and recognized that a plain-speaking liberal could make as strong a candidate in 2006 as an admiral? Yes, but to point that out is not to diminish the extraordinary accomplishment, and how much Rahm Emanuel adapted to a rapidly changing political world.