The latest Democratic junkyard dog was Chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC or D-Triple-C if you live inside the Beltway) for the 2006 election and is a rising star behind the scenes in the DLC. His name is Rahm Emanuel, and he's been called the purest no-holds-barred political animal in America. In a Salon review of a book about him, Chicago reporter Ed McClelland says he "comes off as one of the most colorful, driven and profane Washington characters since Lyndon Johnson". That may not be hyperbole.
At a Clinton victory dinner in Little Rock in 1992, Emanuel celebrated by reciting a hoped-for necrology of Democrats who had "fucked" the president-elect. After every name, he stabbed a steak knife into a table and screamed, "Dead man!"McClelland appears to be an admirer of Emanuel's down-and-dirty style.
Election Night 2002 was a gloomy watch for Democrats. Their party, led by a pair of innocuous Midwestern Main Streeters, Richard Gephardt and Thomas Daschle, lost control of the Senate and lost seats in the House, sinking to its lowest ebb since the Roaring '20s. Smug right-wing pundits predicted the Democrats were on their way to joining the Whigs in the ashcan of American political parties.That's what junkyard dogs do. They win and they don't much care what they have to do to make it happen. That's their function and that's why we need them.
It was a different story in Illinois. The Democrats won everything. They took the governorship for the first time in 30 years. They captured the state Senate. This despite running a ticket made up of ward bosses' children and in-laws. I remember sitting on my couch in Chicago and thinking, "If the Democrats want to turn it around, they need to take some lessons from the machine around here. Chicago Democrats have no scruples. They treat political offices as feudal inheritances. They shake down contributors like a corrupt pope selling indulgences. They're sleazy, they're arrogant … and they WIN."
But you don't let them govern. You don't let them make policy. In fact, you keep them as far away from the levers of power as possible because they're as likely to embarrass you - or turn on you - as not. They're dangerous, and they have to be controlled or you'll lose three times as often as you win. They're two-edged swords, and for every friend of theirs who puts money in your coffers there will be two enemies waiting to slit your throat.
On the basis of his highly-touted wins, Emanuel gets to play power-broker, policy-maker and kingmaker. He meets regularly with Al Frum and calls Bill Clinton several times a week to "talk strategy". He has read the riot act to Howard Dean over Dean's 50-state strategy.
When Emanuel and Sen. Charles Schumer of New York met with Dean to ask him to shift money to congressional races, Emanuel mocked the former Vermont governor as a political lightweight from a tiny, rural, homogenous state. "No disrespect, but some of us are arrogant enough, we come from Chicago, we think we know what it means to knock on a door," Bendavid quotes Emanuel as telling Dean. Emanuel "slammed his hand on the table," then continued his tirade: "Look, Chuck comes from Brooklyn. I come from Chicago. It ain't Burlington, Vermont. Now, we understand that Burlington knows a lot about grassroots politics and we know nothing. I know your field plan -- it doesn't exist. I've gone around the country with these races. I've seen your people. There's no plan, Howard."Nobody told him to cool it, nobody told him to lay off, and nobody explained the genius of Dean's planning. Instead, they patted him on the back and repeated the story with admiration for how "tough" Emanuel is.
Well, after 30 years of Democratic wusses afraid to talk back to Republicans, it would make sense that Emanuel's take-no-prisoners approach felt like a breath of fresh air. The problem is that that freshness is all illusion. And his "victories" are mostly PR illusions as well.
A junkyard dog is supposed to win. That's what makes him valuable. But Emanuel made a lot of mistakes. In point of fact, he lost more elections than he won. Illinois campaign activist Ray Koltys writes:
Here in the Illinois 10th, we are a bit unhappy that Rahm saw fit to parachute in and finance Tammy Duckworth over in the 6th. He offended local dems, who had been supporting Christine Cegelis, who had been making headway in her several attempts at the seat, and pissed away a lot of money to prop up a candidate who didn't really have much presence in front of a microphone, and ended up losing big time.And Koltys isn't alone. Another Democratic activist summed it up this way:
Meanwhile, in the 10th, Rahm gave virtually NO money to Dan Seals, an energetic challenger to Rahm's schoolmate, Republican Mark Kirk. Despite limited resources, Seals built an organization (of which I was a small part), campaigned his butt off, and came incredibly close to beating a milquetoast incumbent in a historically Republican district with 47% to Kirk's 53%.
1. Overwhelmingly, the electorate listed Iraq as the most important issue in 2006. Up until September of 2006, Rahm was telling Democrats NOT TO TALK ABOUT IRAQ. Only when they noticed that opposition to Bush's Iraq policy made a candidates numbers go up, did Rahms Democrats start talking about it. So - not exactly a message genius there.Emanuel is now Chair of the House Democratic Caucus, a powerful leadership position and precisely NOT the place you want a junkyard dog. He's helping to fashion the DLC's next campaign platform and sitting in on strategy sessions.
2. If you look at the 25 candidates on Rahm's "Red to Blue" list - the races he thought the Dems could win, and where he wanted to pour ALL the money - only 13 Dems on that list won. The rest of the Dem pickups were grassroots, netroots populists and progressives who had been first opposed by Rahm, and were then ignored by the DCCC.
3. Rahm poured MILLIONS and MILLIONS into races on his list that were eventually lost: Tammy Duckworth in Illinois, Darcy Burner in WA, Patricia Madrid in New Mexico.
If Rahm had gotten his own ego out of the way, looked at the polls, and put even a fraction of that money into netroots candidates that the DCCC ignored - like Larry Kissel in North Carolina, Victoria Wulsin in Ohio, Charles Brown in CA - The Democrats could have picked up another 5 or 6 seats in 2006.
And why not? If losing more elections than you won kept you off the DLC team, none of them would have the positions they hold. Losing a lot but focusing only on the few wins is the unacknowledged pattern they all share.
Next: Show Me the Money