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The big reveal: Who Rahm Emanuel really is

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The morning after being elected as Chicago's new mayor, Rahm Emanuel said his election marks a new beginning for the city. Emanuel says he will be honest about the choices that will have be made to keep Chicago as a world class city. (Feb. 23)

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Thursday, February 24, 2011

Mayor Rahm. It will be a hoot. It could even be good for Chicago.

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And in a way he has never had to do before, Rahm Emanuel will finally reveal who he really is.

One of the many dramas of a Rahm mayoralty - roll over, Fiorello La Guardia - will be its status as a controlled (or, perhaps, uncontrolled) experiment in how a brilliant political operative translates campaigning skills into governing achievement. Bill Clinton was an elected official who happened to be one of the country's smartest consultants. Rahm is the go-to adviser who happens to be good at running for office.

But first, a word of warning: All columns about Rahm should carry a consumer advisory. No person in public life has been more assiduous about courting journalists, and he is an aficionado of the column-writing trade.

As President Obama's chief of staff, Rahm doubled as an all-purpose assignment editor. (It's why we all call him Rahm.) He'd approach every columnist with a pitch calibrated to the political leanings of his target. He'd peddle more liberal story lines to liberals and more moderate takes to moderates.

Occasionally, he'd market the same idea to several scribes. When you politely demurred - he offered ideas wholesale, aware that he'd never get a 100 percent hit rate - you did so knowing he'd keep selling until his notion turned up somewhere. Every so often (but only when asked), he'd ruefully admit you were the second or third person he'd sought to entice with a particular line.

He gets away with this because he is, in a certain way, Mr. Transparency. If he's slick, it's because he's unslick. All transactions with him are of the postmodern he-knows-that-you-know-and-you-know-that-he knows-you-know variety. He's always operational, always trying to move the political needle. Even his well-known love for profanity has helped him build his brand.

He could pull off being sincerely progressive to progressives and sincerely moderate to moderates because - again, like his Comeback Kid mentor - he embodies within himself all the wings of his beloved Democratic Party. One of my favorite (printable) Rahm quotations is his observation that the talk in his home when he was growing up led him to believe that the Democratic Party "was one of the 10 lost tribes of the Jewish faith." This primordial feeling allows him to understand every kind of Democrat.

Many assume he is more New Democrat than liberal because of his advocacy during the Clinton years of welfare reform, NAFTA and a tough approach to crime. He was more ready to compromise on health care than Obama was. And, yes, his mayoral campaign was more like a venture capital fund, a juggernaut financed by big contributions from some of the country's richest people.

But there's nothing illiberal about being against crime, and Rahm has consistently emphasized the toll of street violence on the poor, a theme he struck again in his victory speech on Tuesday. He understands the value of a certain amount of populism. He's been obsessed with the things government can do to lift up a struggling middle class, to help poor kids achieve in school, to give everyone a shot at college and to offer low-income people chances to build some wealth. He argued passionately for bailing out the auto industry.

But in this mix of positions, the exact location of Rahm's political heart has remained obscure. He has never tried to be all things to all people, but he has succeeded in being many things to many people - precisely why his press is so good and why he won on Tuesday.

As mayor, he'll be forced to resolve some of the mystery that surrounds him: in the programs he cuts, expands or creates; in the taxes he raises - tax cuts aren't an option, given Chicago's deficits; and in how he deals with his city's public employee unions. (Hint: Model how a Democrat can deal effectively with unions without joining your Republican neighbor in Wisconsin in trying to break them.)

In most of the jobs he's had so far, Rahm was advancing the positions of towering bosses (Clinton and Obama) or the political interests of his Democratic colleagues in the House of Representatives. Now, he will be the star and not simply the producer-director-publicist. My bet, like Chicago's, is that he can pull this off. What I'm certain of is that he, like his Hollywood-agent brother, will put on a show worthy of HBO's attention.

ejdionne@washpost.com



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