The Struggle for the Soul of the Party

I’ve mentioned it before there’s a wisecrack of my former business partner’s I think of as “the reverse Voltaire”: I agree with what you say but I will condemn to the death your right to say it. That’s what I thought when I read former Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s op-ed in the Wall Street Journal this morning.

There were quite a few things with which I agreed in the op-ed but I was gobsmacked by it because Rahm Emanuel is such a terrible messenger for those points for reasons I’ll go into later in this post. For example, I agree with this and I think a lot of Americans do:

In the quarter-century since Newt Gingrich became speaker of the House, Washington has become increasingly dysfunctional. Whatever your theory for why that’s happened, Donald Trump’s surprise election in 2016 was born largely of presenting himself as a change agent for those angry at Washington. Now Democrats are faced with a fundamental choice: Should we promise to return Washington to the pre-Trump “normal,” or should we instead take back the mantle of change?

That’s something I think that Democrats need to face. Without the perception that Washington was working fine for the rich but not for ordinary people and that, indeed, the Washington elite openly despises ordinary people, would there be a Trump?

Or this:

State and local government today get things done, while Washington so frequently falls short.

That’s a reality that those who want to concentrate everything in DC just don’t understand. Health care programs (mostly Medicare and Medicaid), Social Security, Defense, veteran’s benefits, and interest on the debt account for 80% of federal spending. Toss in farm subsidies, federal spending on education, and building new highways (but not maintaining existing ones) and you reach 90% of federal spending. Practically all of your, my, and everybody else’s quotidian encounters with government are with state and local government. State and local governments run the schools and most of the courts, maintain the roads, produce and enforce most regulations, fight fires, respond to emergencies, provide for the safety of the buildings around you, and provide almost all of the law enforcement. The notion of the federal government absorbing those responsibilities is not only absurd on its face but would be horrifically inefficient.

Now he gets to the meat of his argument:

Sen. Bernie Sanders is an anomaly. As someone who’s running for the Democratic nomination without even being a Democrat, he presents himself as an outsider. But as Mr. Biden has pointed out, Mr. Sanders has been making the same argument about profit-seeking corporations and greedy executives for decades. It’s pretty hard to maintain a legitimate claim on the “change agent” persona when your most memorable line in the campaign is “I wrote the damn bill!” Perhaps it’s no surprise that his support in New Hampshire fell from more than 60% in 2016 to less than 26% this year. Radical as his solutions may be, he is offering voters a bridge to the past.

Mayor Emanuel is right that there is a contest going on for the soul of the Democratic Party. As Peggy Noonan pointed out in her column today, it can be summarized in just two short sentences:

Mike Bloomberg: You can stomach me.

Bernie Sanders : You can stomach socialism.

I honestly don’t see how today’s Democratic Party can frame itself as the “agent of change” and the agent of the civil bureaucracy and financiers as Mayor Emanuel apparently wants to do. And that brings me around to why he’s such a flawed messenger.

First, he’s the consummate inside. He wasn’t just mayor of Chicago. He was an advisor to President Bill Clinton, his primary spokesman for a while (during the impeachment), a Congressman, the party insider who crafted the House majority from which President Barack Obama benefited early in his first term, and Obama’s first chief-of-staff. What does he know about outsiders?

And he was a terrible mayor. During his tenure the homicide rate soared to levels unseen in decades (maybe ever), Chicago’s bond rating went to junk status, he gave teachers a 30% raise that the city couldn’t afford which will saddle Chicagoans with increased pension payouts for decades to come, and he championed amenities for well-heeled downtown professionals while closing Southside schools.

If you’re going to position the party as being an institution that delivers, you’ve got to do a better job than that.

5 comments… add one
  • TarsTarkas Link

    Rahm Emanuel and everybody who swims in the same school of political fish just don’t get it. Their way of running things failed a large enough portion of the American people so much that they were willing to take a flier on a tawdry obnoxious boor who promised a return to the days of glory than keep on voting for people they believed would keep on screwing them over while giggling about it. The perception (and in many ways the reality) was that what the true ‘expertise’ of the ‘politicopunditocracy’ was was how to game and rig the system to benefit themselves and their kind rather than the country at large. They forgot that they are the servants of the people, not the other way around. Most Americans do not yet consider themselves to be subjects.

    And now the mask is off the power brokers. They are so determined to reverse the 2016 election they will do everything and anything to regain total power. And once they do, they will never ever allow another outsider to gain power. The squabbling over power will forevermore remain within the club. That is why they went after Stone, Manafort, Flynn, Nunes, etc. Not just to punish them for supporting or helping Trump., but to warn anybody else who ever supports Trump or another political outsider that scorched earth tactics are what will be used against you if you don’t toe the line politically (and increasingly socially).

  • I’d put it a little differently. “Skimming a little off the top” is not a problem and in fact it may even be necessary to keep any reasonable system operating. But that means implicitly you’ve got to limit the take.

    Consider the Clintons, for example. They were raking in 100s of millions in what was rather obviously influence peddling. That’s not “a little off the top” any more. Or Mike Madigan. We don’t actually know his net worth but it’s believed to be in the millions.

  • GreyShambler Link

    Consider the Clintons, for example:

    Surprised Dave, that you’d believe in a conspiracy theory like that. The Clinton’s are some of the most respected and admired people in the country. Bill ranking number eight three times and Hillary number one 22 whopping years, according to Gallup.

    I’d have to think that people who consider them dishonest are out of the mainstream.

  • jan Link

    Power “trumps” money. Everyone seems attracted to being the one on the heap of the pile telling everyone else what to do. It’s become graphically clear in the federal government where minions, formerly answering to the Obama Administration, continued to think they had lingering authority to take down the new guy who wasn’t supposed to occupy the WH. Even now they are attempting to put together another anonymously sourced story linked to yet more Russia colluding with Trump’s 2020 election. It’s getting old, though, to have unverified allegations repeat themselves over and over again, especially when an election is mere months away.

  • GreyShambler Link

    ” the true ‘expertise’ of the ‘politicopunditocracy’ was was how to game and rig the system to benefit themselves and their kind ”

    And whilst posing as the people who care about the downtrodden.
    I think the present leaders of the Democratic party need to step back and ask themselves what they really stand for, or better yet, since they aren’t capable of honest self reflection, step aside. Retire. Sip cocktails or glacial water at Davos.
    If there are no serious up and comers, so be it. Stop trying to piece together a coalition of mutually exclusive splinter single issue groups. It’s disingenuous, especially when the candidate has a 40 or 50 year history of wetting their beak at every opportunity.
    And for God’s sake, take some public speaking courses and learn stage presence skills. Does anyone think Reagan’s acting career wasn’t an asset?

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