Rahm Roars Back

By John F. Harris

So maybe you imagined after a change of power in Chicago City Hall you would not be hearing much from former Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

Well, in that case, you imagined wrong.

Emanuel, it is true, left office last May after eight years with something of a limp. The decision not to seek a third term came amid uncertainty about whether he could win and certainty that any attempt to do so would put the city’s old racial and class divisions on new and painful display.

Ten months later, the limp is gone. On this particular day, to the contrary, Emanuel was sprinting—from “Morning Joe,” to “The View,” to local radio interviews, to Colbert. In between, wouldn’t you figure, was POLITICO.

The proximate cause of all this chatter was Emanuel’s new book, “The Nation City: Why Mayors Are Now Running the World.” The book’s official thesis: At a time when national government in the United States, and many other countries, is bogged down in polarized politics and a poverty of ideas, cities have become the primary engines of innovation, problem-solving, and the creation of financial and human capital.

That idea is not wholly original—it’s been articulated by other voices over the past decade or so—but the book’s author is. He is one of a small handful of people who have served at top levels of both of the past two Democratic White Houses, returning to his native Chicago for elected office (as a member of Congress between 2003 and 2009, before the mayoralty, between 2011 and 2019). Not many political figures are like Bono or Cher—the first name is what everyone knows—but Rahm is one. It is shorthand for a brand of politics merging a zeal for combat with joyful self-promotion. For a certain generation of Washington reporters, with roots covering Clinton-era Democrats, he is a familiar and insistent voice at the end of the line, and the vicissitudes of his own career seem to roughly synch up with those of his party.

Which leads to the book’s unofficial thesis (and the reason it is newsworthy in a way the typical tract on urban policy may not be): Emanuel intends to stay at the center of the Democratic conversation, proselytizing for his own belief that even if his centrist politics seem eclipsed at the present, they still represent the future for Democrats who care about wielding power rather than merely talking about it.

During the supposed ascendancy of populist progressives in his party, he knows that his ideas, record and persona have made him a reviled figure in many precincts of the American left. How does he feel about that? “Fine,” he said. Does it bother him? “No.”

“We share the same goals,” he added, before continuing with the kind of language that makes him a lightning rod. Referring to Bernie Sanders, and even more to backers of Bernie Sanders, he said: “What I don’t agree with is making pledges that will never, ever be realized in people’s lives, I’m not sure are the right policy, and will only reward their cynicism about those of us that make big promises. And so do they attack? Yeah, I think some people on the left are more angry at Bill Clinton and Barack Obama than they are at Donald Trump and I think the left has got it all upside down.”

He’s stunned, he said in our interview, that rivals have not done a more effective job exploiting the contradictions in Sanders’ record (such as old votes against banning assault weapons) and other vulnerabilities. “These candidates better pick up their game,” he scoffed. “Give me a break.”

The references to Clinton and Obama are a reminder of Emanuel’s special status within the Democratic conversation. A campaign hand and then West Wing “senior adviser” to Clinton before serving three terms in the House and then becoming chief of staff to Obama, the few others with similar influence and prominence at the top of both administrations—Leon Panetta and Hillary Clinton come to mind—are from the generation ahead of Emanuel, and now project a kind of elder statesman status.

Emanuel, by contrast, continues to have the soul of the political operative he once was (he began his career as staffer for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and then as a fundraiser for Bill Clinton). He’s on the phone constantly—reporters, politicians, business friends—and never stops inhaling new information or narrating the state of play in the political arena as he sees it.

There is no question that he is out of step with the moment, in a party that is impatient with the centrism Emanuel advocates and includes many people who are contemptuous of the elite circles he is skilled at navigating and himself represents. The hyperkinesis with which Emanuel still vibrates at age 60 sends my mind back to when I first met him—another occasion when he seemed to be out of step with the moment.

After Bill Clinton won the presidency in 1992, Emanuel was rewarded with the job of White House political director. He soon made a nonadmirer out of a powerful person: first lady Hillary Clinton. She regarded Emanuel’s brash style as reflecting a smart-but-not-wise ethos among the young White House staff, and believed this was partly responsible for presidential stumbles in his first year in office.

A senior White House official came to Emanuel with a not-so-subtle suggestion: Perhaps he might be happier with a job at the Democratic National Committee. Emanuel was obviously being shown the door. But he refused to walk through it. He said he would not leave unless the conflict-averse president personally told him he was fired. So instead Emanuel was eased into a free-floating policy job, with a nice office out of the way and what he called “a toy phone.”

I met him in 1995—immediately after Newt Gingrich roared to power with the House GOP takeover in the 1994 midterms—and Emanuel was slowly turning the toy phone into a real one. He made himself a specialist on policy announcements and executive actions—on guns, education, child health care—that Clinton could use to reclaim the political center he lost during the first years of his presidency. When Clinton won reelection in 1996, the aide who had been on the verge of being fired was promoted to an office next to the Oval Office.

A couple themes from those years seem relevant to Emanuel’s contemporary circumstances. One, it is hard to overstate the discipline and monomania he brings to the task of keeping himself relevant to the political conversation. The second is that not many people who have known him for long would doubt that he is fundamentally progressive in his philosophy.

As mayor, he would sometimes startle audiences of professionals by reminding them his lakefront city had kids in poor neighborhoods whose lives were so constrained that they had never seen Lake Michigan. But he would follow that sentence by reminding his audience that chances are they had likewise never seen the neighborhoods where those poor kids lived.

He’s made himself personally wealthy during interludes out of politics as an investment banker, but these have not created much outward-facing impact on him. I’ve never heard him, or heard from others about him, expressing curiosity or concern about business or the standard preoccupations of the wealthy.

Emanuel’s preoccupations are about power. What sometimes comes off as casual derision for the left is rooted in two main fears, both grounded in his own experience. First, is the ease with which a liberal agenda can be weaponized by conservatives. Democrats win majorities only by carrying tough districts filled with voters who can embrace specific uses of government to make life better but are wary of Big Government in the abstract. Second, is the ease with which liberal ideals can be distorted in practice by special interests.

These themes are both touched on in “The Nation City.” He describes his successful battle against the teachers union to change Chicago’s status as having the shortest school days and the shortest school year in the nation. During a school strike, picketers surrounded his house chanting, “Rahm sucks!”

The book is not a memoir, and Emanuel sheds no new light on the most sensitive episode of his tenure, the notorious police shooting of Laquan McDonald in 2014.

In little sketches here and there, however, he does illuminate parts of his life that go beyond the well-worn Rahm mythology, with its emphasis on profanity and swagger. Obama at a press dinner said Emanuel’s shortened middle finger, the result of a teenage accident, “rendered him practically mute.” In fact, the infection (after a cut during his shift at Arby’s) that led to the finger’s amputation caused a seven-week hospitalization. In our interview, Emanuel said he worried he was going to die. “I swore that if I ever got out of that hospital,” he said, “I was going to make something of myself and I’ve been chasing that and motivated by that failure and that near-death experience ... my whole life.”

As for the book, it essentially amounts to an appeal to retrieve politics from the realm of abstraction—from battles over ideological purity and partisan positioning—and return it to the realm of the practical, where people know firsthand whether the streets are safe or unsafe, whether the airport and subways are modern or falling apart whether the neighborhoods they roam are ascendant or in decline. “Our cities,” he writes in the book, “have become places where function has replaced dysfunction. Intimate has replaced distant, and immediate has replaced dithering.”

Listen to audio of POLITICO’s conversation with Emanuel here. Transcribed excerpts of our conversation are below.

On cities filling the vacuum left by the dysfunction of the national government
“I think the center of gravity of our politics is moving much and much more local. If the economy is global, all politics is a local job. When you think about where you live, you work, you play, where you’re going to raise your kids and the things that you rely on: transportation, schools, parks, libraries, safety. Those are all services that are delivered by local government and this is not the first time we’ve ever kind of been where the lead is happening more locally than nationally.

“But what’s different is not only those innovations in those specific areas of parks, libraries or education, and I can talk a little more about that. But cities then are taking on things that used to be totally the responsibility of the national government. I happen to be in New York when you’re interviewing me. I did this the other day in Chicago—but Mayor Bloomberg—I learned it from him—pushed new research centers. He created the research center with Cornell down at Roosevelt Island.

“We pushed what was called the ‘Discovery Center’ with the University of Illinois’ Computer Science and Engineering School. The whole idea of a new research center of a university. That would have been a national or a state function. It’s become city. Climate change. Chicago had the only major city with coal plants in it. We shut those down. Those are supposed to be the policies in the national government. We were taking on that responsibility.

“Constituents [are] demanding it. The City of Chicago, not unlike New York, L.A., Nashville, Louisville—[voters] want to see what the city is doing to change greenhouse gas emissions. They want to see how a city is going to address what I call the “inclusive economic growth.” The federal government has walked away from those things; cities have stepped forward to handle those things.”

On 2020 politics
At this point 10, 15, 20 years ago, if you keep finishing third or fourth, you’re done. Because of the internet and because of the money, you’ve got people who finish consistently third or fourth or fifth staying in. Ten years ago, this would be down to two, mano to mano. You have five candidates splitting up, quote-unquote, ‘the moderate or non-hard left.’ But you have candidates who have done—and I don’t care. Senator Warren has yet to finish first or second. Amy Klobuchar has yet to finish first or second. Mayor Pete has finished first, second, and I don’t know, fourth, third.

“Joe Biden has finished second, fifth, and fourth. Ten years ago, every one of those candidates and Tom Steyer, every one of those candidates who has not finished in the top four of anyplace would be out. ….And nobody’s going to get out. They don’t have to. Welcome to the new politics. Do you think that’s wrong? .…

“I noticed that between 2016 and 2020, Bernie Sanders’ position about the superdelegates and about how we pick a nominee has totally changed. I’ll tell you this. These candidates better pick of their game. You’re in Nevada. Two years ago, the worst mass shooting—one of the worst in American history. You have a frontrunner who is against the assault weapon ban, against holding gun manufacturers accountable, and you focus on a guy who is not even on the ballot, Bloomberg?

“Give me a break. This guy—beyond that, he’s in Vegas where he got his heart at the hospital fixed. Did you ask him, “Did he use Medicare, or did he use the government health care plan that all senators get?” And if he didn’t use Medicare, why? I don’t get it. You’re angry at Bloomberg for spending $400 million so you’re blinded by your hatred and the frontrunner that you’ve got to stop is right next to you, and you don’t touch him on guns, on Medicare?”

On the disappearance of the political center
“In the book, I highlight medium and small cities, Republican mayors as well—you know of my own friendship with Ray LaHood, who is a Republican—and I would say to you is the challenges facing a city and a mayor have to make these kinds of progressive investments into the future whether they’re a big city, a medium-sized city, or a small, or whether they’re a Democrat or Republican administration. I know a lot of Republican mayors doing things on climate change and immigration reform and education reform and expanding opportunities in pre-K.

“So I don’t think the center is gone. I actually think it’s alive and well at the local level and functioning. You are right, our national government has gone into more of a blood sport, where people you disagree with is a disagreement that expands beyond policy differences and that we don’t find that common ground or search for it. While I was very partisan in the sense [that] I wanted to see a Democratic majority when I was chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, some of my best friendships were with Republican members of Congress, and you have to work at it.”

On whether centrist Democrats are too close to business
I’m not pro-business and I’m not pro-labor even though both were very supportive of my candidacy. I’m pro-growth. ... . Every one of the businesses I brought [to Chicago] I challenged them to be involved in our community colleges, to be part of the curriculum development and hiring from it. Take Accenture, which made a major expansion in the City of Chicago, took a leadership in the Wright Community College. Went from zero to hiring 40 people out of Wright Community College on an annual basis. …

“I made them all do things that were part of making sure other parts of the city, other people in the city were part of their success. ... There are other big cities that write big tax packages for sporting stadiums. [I said,] “Not happening. It is not going to happen here.” They still did the expansion, still created the jobs. … I don’t believe in corporate welfare any more than I believe in other types of welfare that create a dependency.”