Paul Begala refers to Rep. Rahm Emanuel’s style as a “cross between a hemorrhoid and a toothache.” His stint as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has been notable for his clashes with DNC Chairman Howard Dean over strategy, resources, and the direction of the party.
A former aide to President Clinton, he was known as “Rahm-bo” among friend and foe alike. Schooled in the rough and tumble of Chicago politics, he was a senior adviser to Richard Daley’s successful 1989 mayoral bid — a man he considers one of two political mentors (the other being the gracious and cerebral former Senator Paul Simon of Illinois).
And now, Barack Obama has selected him for perhaps the most powerful staff position in the White House: chief of staff.
At first blush, this pairing would seem to be a mismatch: Emanuel, the intensely partisan, in your face, no holds barred political scrapper and the cool, detached, even tempered Obama.
But there are several good reasons why Obama wanted Emanuel in the White House, not the least of which is his ability to raise large amounts of money. He proved it with Daley and Clinton, and as chairman of the DCCC. No doubt Obama will start the fundraising early considering he himself has broken the mold and Republicans will now seek to match his prodigious fundraising efforts of 2008, when he raised in excess of $650 million for his primary and general election campaigns.
But beyond his ability to shake the money tree, Emanuel is considered to have one of the finest political minds in Washington. (This coming from his former boss Clinton who was no slouch himself when it came to developing winning strategies.) Obama will no doubt appreciate Emanuel’s knowledge of House Democrats — their needs, their strengths, their weaknesses — when strategizing on how to get his agenda passed.
And he will also appreciate Emanuel’s legendary reputation as a political pit bull. He’s relentless on the attack, piteous when exposing an opponent’s soft underbelly, and he has an all out desire to win.
How will Obama square his soothing words directed at Republicans on election night with this choice of a political assassin as chief of staff? This from a profile in Rolling Stone:
Friends and enemies agree that the key to Emanuel’s success is his legendary intensity. There’s the story about the time he sent a rotting fish to a pollster who had angered him. There’s the story about how his right middle finger was blown off by a Syrian tank when he was in the Israeli army. And there’s the story of how, the night after Clinton was elected, Emanuel was so angry at the president’s enemies that he stood up at a celebratory dinner with colleagues from the campaign, grabbed a steak knife and began rattling off a list of betrayers, shouting “Dead! … Dead! … Dead!” and plunging the knife into the table after every name. “When he was done, the table looked like a lunar landscape,” one campaign veteran recalls. “It was like something out of The Godfather. But that’s Rahm for you.”
Only the second of those stories about Emanuel is a myth; he lost his finger in a meat slicing accident as a boy. But the question remains: what do Republicans think of this selection?
House Minority Leader John Boehner pulls no punches when he says, “”This is an ironic choice for a president-elect who has promised to change Washington, make politics more civil, and govern from the center.”
And the Republican National Committee has lost no time in going on the attack, beginning a list entitled “Obama’s Broken Promises” starting with the “Hyperpartisan Emanuel.”
You could probably write a book using all the stories and myths about Emanuel’s ferociousness, but some who know him best say he has mellowed a bit on the Hill and that he is an excellent choice for Obama’s chief of staff. For all his partisanship, he has successfully worked with Republicans when he was in the Clinton White House, most notably on the North American Free Trade Agreement. One Democrat said of him, “He’s got a deeply held set of views, but he also understands to get things done you have to compromise.”
But then there’s that strange dichotomy — a potential witches’ brew of a personality conflict between Obama and Emanuel. Senior Washington politico David Gergen dismisses any concerns that the two might have trouble working together, saying it could be an advantage for Obama. “They are obviously setting up a good cop/bad cop routine in the White House. … Barack Obama can be the good guy,” Gergen said.
A pragmatic centrist or an insanely partisan political operative? It is possible that before he’s through, Obama may have need of both.