As police violence against people of color became a national emergency, Emmanuel left office angry at the way he and the city government handled one of the country’s most notorious events, the murder of 17-year-old LaQuan MacDonald, who was shot 16 while He was turning away from an officer.
While the new force of the left is widely promoted, Biden has brushed off warnings from rising stars like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez about someone they believe epitomizes the Democratic Party’s problems. Instead, he appointed Emmanuel to represent the country before a major world power – a position that has historically been given to such distinguished figures as Caroline Kennedy, former Vice President Walter Mondale and former Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield.
Emmanuel’s survival is more than just good luck. It comes from more than just good connections, even if those obviously help.
It stems from some distinct factors that shed light on important dynamics around contemporary politics – why many politicians see their careers riven by controversy, while far fewer manage to transcend efforts to destroy it and thrive over many years.
There are three lessons any political figure – even those who hate Emmanuel and the brand of democratic centrist that he represents – can use to their advantage.
Lesson 1: Don’t take the hint
Perhaps a more traditional politician with scar tissue for Emmanuel decided that a key appointment in the Biden administration was calling for trouble. Simply put, his motivation to participate in the event is not traditional. And do not tolerate pain.
Two other politicians help illustrate this point.
Al Franken resigned from his position as a Senator from Minnesota. He did so reluctantly and quickly regretted his choice. But the moment he was accused of sexual harassment in December 2017, and came under fire from fellow Democrats such as Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), he felt he had no other choice.
But he had a choice. Look at Virginia Governor Ralph Northam, who just finished his full term in the new year. He did so in a flurry of generally positive news coverage about his record of racial reconciliation. Much of that came from the media swooning over his resignation three years ago after the 1984 yearbook photo of a man apparently wearing a black face was revealed. Northam was apparently on the verge of heeding his pleas to leave before deciding at the last minute to stay put. In a television appearance, Emmanuel urged him not to quit, a clip Northam had seen. Emmanuel called with thanks.
It turns out that part of the political power is due to psychology. Having brassy people to ignore public or private censure may or may not be a positive personality trait as an individual. But in an age of increasing political and media ferocity, it can be an indispensable part of political personality. Most people simply aren’t wired that way.
Emmanuel was at a young age. In 1993, when Emmanuel was former President Bill Clinton’s first White House political director, his reckless manner led to first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton’s disapproval. She wanted him to leave. White House Chief of Staff McClarty arrived with an inaccurate suggestion that Emanuel might be happier on the Democratic National Committee. Emmanuel said he would not leave the White House unless Bill Clinton himself instructed him to do so — knowing that a conflict-averse president is unlikely to force the issue. Within two years, Emmanuel had relentlessly returned to his place as one of a handful of Clinton’s most important aides.
Disavowing an intelligent consensus about whether or not I’m awake, or about what I’m “supposed to do” in response to setbacks, is easier for someone like former President Donald Trump, whose allure rests entirely on contempt for institutional compromise. It’s even harder for someone like Emmanuel – or Clinton or former President Barack Obama – whose entire career involves navigating the institution and winning its top prizes. However, it is this kind of self-obsession with staying alive and in the arena that allows Emanuel to seek and win a big Biden date even with all the scar tissue he has accumulated.
Lesson Two: Keep the Hacking Spirit
Emanuel started as a fundraiser and campaigner for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. As he rose to the top after the Clinton years—as investment banker, congressman, Obama White House chief of staff, then mayor—it was perfectly natural for him to think, “I’ve got the right to stop hustling and work with dignity and distance from the principal.”
What Emmanuel knows is that in modern political culture, activists — close to gossip, from sophisticated media narratives, to trying to undermine who — often wield more real power than officials. It’s the same thing that James Baker, the activist-turned-manager, understood for another generation. Even after he became Treasury and Secretary of State, he didn’t stop working in Washington and writing the story.
Who is ringing my cell phone on Sunday morning? Oh, it’s Ram. I’m out on a dog walk – should I take it? Of course, why not. What’s on his mind? There’s usually some questions about whether you’ve seen some of the articles, some conceptual arguments he has about how the Democrats beat this up or have a good chance of winning it. He’s smart, he’s funny, he’s perceptive in his assessments of fellow politicians. Very quickly, he went to the next call.
I enjoy exchanges, but have no illusions that I’m in an exclusive group. How many people receive these calls? I’m sure there are dozens. (“I was talking to Daschle…” “Carville was saying the same thing you’re saying but Paul doesn’t agree…”) I know several journalists who’ve had it.
Perhaps this proves that we are all swamp creatures in equal measure. But, simply on practical grounds, a practical mindset is essential to how Emmanuel uses power. This is why he and Biden shared the Obama White House. This is why Chief of Staff and fellow activist Ron Klein (who can be seen as he looked 30 years ago with Emmanuel in war room, Clinton campaign documentary 92) thinks he should have brought some great jobs to Emmanuel even after the transportation secretary’s original idea didn’t materialize. Which is why several key members of the black caucus of Chicago City Council, as well as New Jersey Senator Cory Booker, supported Emmanuel’s nomination for ambassador, preventing the vote from becoming a racial test.
An aside: given how worried politicians are about news coverage—craving more of it, but also bemoaning what they get—it’s surprising that few have mastered the relatively easy art of working in the media. There is nothing Emmanuel can do that no ambitious politician from the left or the right can do. He is already working in Japanese media.
Lesson Three: Governance Issues
I know Emmanuel well enough to know what he is like and unlike most other politicians. I know him so well that I cannot be the right reporter to evaluate his record on merit.
If you want an account of why so many people consider him an unfortunate figure, there’s a decent person here and another with a list of indictments here.
However, in terms of the outrage he evokes on the left, it is surprising to me that in the nearly three decades I have been covering Emmanuel, the myths surrounding him have shifted from a reputation as a rabid Democrat to a reputation as a hateful Democrat. Defender – pleasing to business and conservatives, which is hardly ever progressive.
Adherents of this latter view would not be surprised that Emmanuel’s 48-21 confirmation in the Senate — 31 senators did not vote — came with support from Republicans such as Senators Roy Blunt of Missouri and Rob Portman of Ohio.
It is not intended as a satire on left-wing people who view Emmanuel as a Democrat in name only, but merely as a statement of practical truth, that his hands have been more closely on tangible progressive achievements than most of his opponents on the left. It includes the historic CHIP Health Program for children from low-income families, which Emanuel negotiated on behalf of Clinton in 1997. It includes a key role in helping Democrats win the House of Representatives in 2006, elevating Nancy Pelosi to the speaker position. It included the expansion of pre-kindergarten education in the troubled Chicago public schools, an increase in the minimum wage and a subsidized community college during his tenure as mayor.
The democratic debate about the right balance between pragmatism and ideology is likely to grow more intensely in the coming years. It seems likely that Emmanuel’s attraction to the concrete work of government, and the relationships he forged in that work, is one of the reasons why he was still on stage when so many people wanted to chase him.
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