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?
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.