When we unveiled our first rankings of the 2016 Democratic field last Friday, something fascinating happened.
Emails from smart Democratic strategist types started rolling in, all with a similar theme: How could we have left Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel off of our top 10 list?
The answer: We didn’t think he was all that serious about running — despite the fact that the Daily Beast had reported he was considering a bid in the event former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton doesn’t run.
After a bit of poking and prodding with some well-connected types within Democratic political circles, we stand corrected. There does appear to be some general consensus that the idea of Emanuel isn’t all that far-fetched.
“I’ve known Rahm for almost 30 years and if I’ve learned anything it’s that Rahm can achieve whatever Rahm sets out to achieve,” said Democratic pollster Mark Mellman. “The items on either side of the ledger don’t matter much. If he wants it, he can do it.”
Given that “Emanuel for President” is something being talked about within Democratic circles, we figured it made sense to break out a pros and cons list for why it would/wouldn’t work.
* Fundraising: The sine qua non of running for president is an ability/willingness to raise tens (and maybe in 2016 hundreds) of millions of dollars. Emanuel has a track record on the fundraising front that few candidates not named “Hillary Clinton” can match. Remember that Emanuel came up in politics as a fundraiser for Mayor Daley and then candidate Bill Clinton. His runs for both Congress and mayor have been defined by his massive financial superiority over his opponents. While he wouldn’t enjoy such a big gap if he ran for president, Emanuel would almost certainly be in the top tier money-wise and might even be the leader of the pack.
* An operative’s operative: Emanuel may be a politician now but his heart is always on the operative side of the equation. He loves — and understands — the nitty gritty of political strategy, organizing, advance work, microtargeting and so on and so forth like few other people in Democratic politics these days. Emanuel’s campaign to retake the House majority in 2006 was a masterwork — keyed by his obsessive attention to detail. “There’s no one who understands organizing like him,” said one Democratic pollster granted anonymity to speak candidly. “The Iowa caucuses are like raw meat to him – just waiting for him to organize away.”
* Disciplined messenger: Emanuel was the voice in the Clinton White House constantly urging — often unsuccessfully — his boss to stay on message. In Emanuel’s own political career he has shown an ability to follow his own advice. One example: During Emanuel’s 2011 campaign for mayor, several of his opponents sought to try to disqualify him from the ballot due to a residency issue. While fighting the matter in court, Emanuel kept his message focused — insisting that the residency matter was a distraction and that he was going to keep laying out his plans to make the Windy City better. It worked. A presidential campaign is mind-numbing when it comes to message discipline — you literally have to say the same thing over and over and over and over again, day after day. Many candidates chafe under that requirement and go off script — often with bad results. That wouldn’t be a problem for Rahm.
* Media relationships: One of the critical parts of the Invisible Primary — the several-year process that leads up to the race emerging into public consciousness — is building relationships with the reporters in places like Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina as well as the national press corps. Emanuel already knows all of those people since he has spent his almost his entire professional life working in national and presidential politics. For Emanuel, working the media referees is second nature.
* “Rahmbo”: Emanuel’s universally known (at least in the political world) nickname is telling. He revels in his reputation as a foul-mouthed political operator who finds a way to get his way no matter what. While that works when you are a Member of Congress or even as the Mayor of Chicago, that sort of brass-knuckled approach is less appealing in a presidential candidate. “He could easily be seen as the face of partisanship that the voters so disdain,” said one Democratic political operative granted anonymity to speak candidly about an Emanuel candidacy. “His temperament, his style, and his record all have tire tracks that go over various people.”
* The Chicago record: Emanuel allies insist that he has done much good for the city but it’s clear from the headlines that the dominant story of his time in office so far is the rising murder rate. The Chicago homicide rate in January was its highest in more than a decade and the Windy City has become a national talking point — and not in a good way — when it comes to violence. There’s been little recent credible polling on Emanuel but he has to have taken a hit from all the negative publicity surrounding the murders. And, even if he hasn’t, it’s hard to imagine Emanuel’s potential 2016 opponents wouldn’t dredge up some of those violence stats if he did make a bid.
* No love lost with liberals: Emanuel is the ultimate political pragmatist, which has, not surprisingly, gotten him crosswise with liberals over the year. Emanuel’s opposition to Obama’s decision to push a health care bill in his first year in office is well known. He has also found himself on the wrong side — at least when it comes to Democratic primary politics — with key constituencies like labor over his strong support for NAFTA and teachers’ unions for his decision to stare them down when they went on strike in 2012. Rahm backers insist his issues with liberals are overblown but they will all be re-litigated if he runs for president, and Emanuel would need to find some good answers that placate the base.
* Timing problems: Emanuel will be up for a second term as mayor in 2015, which could complicate the long preparation period needed to run for president, and might force him to decide between running for president and staying on as mayor. (Timing was a major issue for Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal in 2012 since he had a re-election race in November 2011.) That timing concern is exacerbated by the fact that Emanuel has made clear many times that serving as mayor of his hometown is his dream job. And, it’s also worth considering that Emanuel, even with the problems the rising murder rate has caused him, would start out as a favorite to win another term in 2015 — and likely could hold the job for as long as he wants. (Chicago has no term limits on its mayorship and Richard Daley held the job for 24 straight years.) Does Emanuel want to risk what could be lifetime job for a slim-ish chance at the presidency?
To a person, the Democrats we talked to — many of whom voiced the same concerns about an Emanuel candidacy that we outlined above — refused to say he couldn’t run or wouldn’t win, citing his long track record of victories as evidence.
Jim Jordan, who managed John Kerry’s 2004 presidential campaign for a time, summed up that sentiment. ”I’m not booking any flights to Vegas to lay down bets against anything Rahm says he’s going to do,” Jordan said. “It’s a pretty astounding career to big reaches and great grabs.”