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The Fix: What did Rahm mean for the Democratic party

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By Chris Cillizza
Thursday, September 30, 2010; 3:37 PM

The expected departure of White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel tomorrow to pursue a run for mayor of Chicago brings to an end a two-decade period where the operative-Congressman-turned-operative served as a central player in the political positioning of the Democratic party.

From his role as political director in the Clinton White House to his stint as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in the 2006 cycle -- when he led the re-taking of the House from Republicans -- to the role he will leave tomorrow, Emanuel was intimately involved in nearly every aspect of the Democratic party's political strategy.

So, as Emanuel heads out of town to re-enter the rough and tumble -- but more narrow-cast -- world of Chicago politics, the operative question is: What did he mean for the party nationally?

The answer to that question -- divined from conversations with a variety of high-level party operatives in the immediate aftermath of the news of his departure -- appears to be that there is no simple answer.

"He embodies the best and worst of Washington politics," said one senior party strategist granted anonymity to candidly assess Emanuel's time in the nation's capital.

The best? Emanuel's results-oriented approach, according to the source. The worst? "He had no problem with alienating key constituencies to score a point in the short term," the source added.

(That last point could well matter to Emanuel's political future as Chicago politics are notoriously riven along racial and ethnic lines and it's not clear how he will be received among the city's black and Hispanic voters. Rep. Luis Gutierrez, no friend of Emanuel and himself a potential mayoral candidate, said on Monday that he didn't "believe that [Emanuel] has helped facilitate the process to get us to comprehensive immigration reform.")

What's fascinating in conversations about what Emanuel's ultimate legacy in Washington is that almost no one in Democratic politics is without an opinion.

Emanuel's years as a political capo to Clinton had earned him a reputation as a sharp strategic mind and, perhaps as importantly, relationships across the town including with a number of national reporters.

His emergence as an elected official -- he won the 5th district seat held by, among other, Dan Rostenkowski and Rod Blagojevich, in 2002 -- firmly established Emanuel as a force (for good or bad depends on where you were standing.)

Emanuel's rise was rapid. Within four years of his arrival in Congress, he was tasked with leading the Democratic effort to re-take the House majority his party lost in the 1994 election.

That campaign solidified his reputation (even among Republicans) as his party's pre-eminent congressional strategist -- with apologies to the equally talented Chuck Schumer who headed the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee at that same time -- as Democrats picked up 30 seats and regained the majority.

Emanuel's generalship of that effort was rewarded with a slot as chairman of the House Democratic Caucus -- a post from which he sought to highlight his policy bona fides and downplay the rawly political image for which he had become famous in Washington circles.

"A lot of people see Rahm as only a supremely combative partisan, but in doing so, they miss his very practical and pragmatic side," said Penny Lee, a former executive director of the Democratic Governors Association.

While Emanuel seemed to be on a track to contend at some point in the not-too-distant future for the House Speakership, his path changed drastically when he accepted President Obama's offer to serve as chief of staff.

It's in that post, which Emanuel has occupied for the last twenty-two months (or so), on which there is the most disagreement in Democratic circles about his influence over the direction of the party.

Liberals, in particular, expressed displeasure -- repeatedly and loudly -- about what they saw as Emanuel's tendency to settle for a half loaf on major policy fights. It was Emanuel, they argued, who pushed behind the scenes for a scaled-back version of health care reform in the wake of Sen. Scott Brown's (R-Mass.) stunning special election victory in January. (Emanuel, for his part, denied the charge -- insisting that he supported whatever the President wanted on health care.)

The view of Emanuel's time in the White House is very different among campaign strategists -- the permanent group of consultants, pollsters and strategists who spend the entirety of their days working to elect Democrats up and down the ballot.

"Rahm's presence at the White House provided peace of mind," said Monica Dixon a longtime campaign strategist. "It was comforting to know that as part of the Chief of Staff's skill set, there was a voice who knew from experience what it takes to raise money, do research, manage winning campaigns and tackle the challenging decisions made by the party committees."

Given that split, it's a near-certainty that what happens to Democrats on Nov. 2, which is almost certain to be considerable seat losses in the House and Senate, will be interpreted in wildly variant ways.

For Emanuel's detractors, significant Democratic losses will be regarded as evidence that his unwillingness to swing for the fences left the party base dispirited and uninterested.

For his supporters, the losses will likely be attributed to a too-idealistic White House unwilling to follow Emanuel's political advice to the letter.

Emanuel, almost certainly, will play a limited role in that legacy debate going on in Washington as he will need to quickly ramp up a mayoral campaign in a crowded race where victory is far from assured.

Whether he wins or loses the mayoral race, it's hard to fathom Emanuel returning to Washington any time soon. That means that tomorrow will effectively close the book on a significant chapter in Democratic politics in this town. How that chapter fits into the history of the Democratic party and Obama's presidency in particular remains very much an open question.


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