So Much for Unity

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What would people have said if John McCain had won the election, given a wonderful speech about bringing the divided country back together in unity, and then as his first presidential act picked Karl Rove as his chief of staff? That's pretty much what Barack Obama's choice of Rahm Emmanuel amounts to. It isn't a good sign that he's picked one of the most divisive figures in national politics to help lead what he's saying is a new start to change the way people do politics and unify a bitterly divided country. I never saw Obama as really bi-partisan. It's not as if he has a record of getting together with Republicans and working together with them to put together moderate legislation. He just does what he's going to do anyway and convinces Republicans to vote for it. But Emmanuel isn't just "not really bi-partisan". He led the fight for the Democrats to retake Congress in 2006, and it was well-publicized at that time that he'd used some of the dirtiest tricks in the business to make that effort succeed. He's exactly the kind of figure Obama has spent lots of time saying he isn't and saying politicians need to stop being.

It's interesting to compare the early complaints about Bush in 2000 and 2001 for his choice of John Ashcroft, who almost didn't get approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee even to be voted on by the whole Senate. Ashcroft is a nice guy who happens to hold a position toward the extreme on the abortion issue, namely that pro-lifers shouldn't have an exception in rape cases, because the moral status of the fetus doesn't change if the cause of its existence is rape. It's an eminently reasonable position, actually. He holds prayer meetings that some of his co-workers would go to with him. That was pretty much the evidence against him, actually. His being a nice Christian who holds one view that's in the minority was reason enough that he couldn't possibly serve as an unbiased enforcer of the law. Ironically, Ashcroft was a check on those in the administration who really were extremist when it really came down to it with the wiretapping program. I don't remember any harsh words ever uttered by him against any person in the opposing party, even if he has strongly disagreed sometimes with their views. Still, no one has apologized for how the Senate Democrats treated him, and I'm sure no one will.

Rahm Emmanuel, by contrast, was the brains behind many partisan smear efforts during the 2006 election, misrepresenting Republicans left and right with the mere goal of getting a few more Democrats elected. Most politicians of any party will display some dishonesty in order to get elected, and they think their views are better enough that they think it's worth it. But it's usually slight exaggerations or focusing on aspects of a bill that someone pragmatically voted for based on other aspects of the bill or in Obama's case focusing on surface-level elements of your proposed policies while ignoring their more indirect impact. But Emmanuel is known for much more serious partisan politics, insisting that Democratic candidates should do everything possible to win their races (a view Obama has himself said isn't good for the Democratic party or for the country).

So Obama's first move after being elected is to break a significant campaign promise that he'd even reiterated in his acceptance speech the night of the election. He said he'd set a new tone. Selecting Rahm Emmanuel two days later is not setting a new tone. At least Nancy Pelosi waited a couple months before breaking her 2006 election-night promise to include House Republicans in planning congressional reform measures. Obama didn't even wait 48 hours. People are speculating that Obama was thinking he could make himself look like the good cop if he's got such a clear bad cop as his chief of staff, but that's not likely. Did Bush look like the good cop just because Rove, Cheney, and others in his administration were doing the bad copy duties? Complaints about Rove are very much a part of the anti-Bush vitriol from the left. This is only going to fuel partisanship, and Obama is now going to be associated with Emmanuel's style of politics, because when all things are said and done it's still Obama's chief of staff who is known for that kind of partisanship. He's shot his unity effort in the foot, and it's going to be very hard to get any momentum back in that attempt. He's basically going to have to convince some genuine conservatives (i.e. not Colin Powell) to work in his administration and to give them a significant place in setting policy for me to be reassured that he really does intend change of the sort he's said he favors.

11 Comments

Hi, Jeremy. I start with the observation that you don't cite any particular actions by R.E. That is just an observation, not at all a complaint: One thing you can do with perfect legitimacy on a blog is state opinions. And, to be honest, I would find it too depressing to get into a battle of citing incidents, since (for reasons that soon will become apparent) it would involve getting into some of the saddest aspects of our nation's very recent political history. I make the observation because I just want to express a contrary opinion, while similarly failing to provide (the easily providable) details to back it up: When it comes to acts of political depravity, R.E. isn't even remotely in the same league as K.R. I actually find the comparison laughable. Of course, that's only based on what's been done to date, and who knows what the future holds?

On this --

He's basically going to have to convince some genuine conservatives (i.e. not Colin Powell) to work in his administration and to give them a significant place in setting policy for me to be reassured...

-- I not only think there's close to zero chance that you'll get what you need here, but that it would be positively wrong for Obama to provide this. Whether or not Powell will join Obama's administration in some capacity (and I for one hope he does: I'm not one who thinks that Powell's sad performance before the UN negates his long record of distinguished service), Powell-like Republicans are what can be hoped for in the way of bipartisan appointments. And I think that's how it should be, given how Obama campaigned. Given what he said before the election, liberal dems shouldn't be surprised if Obama does a lot of "reaching across the aisle" to get various moderate programs passed, or if he appoints various moderate Republicans to some important posts. But to appoint strongly conservative Republicans and "give them a significant place in setting policy" really would be to fail badly to govern in the way he indicated he would, and would therefore be just plain wrong. Strongly (and in all too many cases, "strong" doesn't begin to cover it!) conservative pols have dominated the executive branch for 8 years now (including parts of the ex.branch that have never before been so politicized, and along with the legislative branch, for at leas some of that time). That's just what so many of Obama's voters were voting to get away from (not all: the "change, change, change" that he stood for meant very different things to different people who bought into it). A mixture of liberal and moderate policies are what he gave people reason to expect in his campaign, and so is what he should try to provide. I imagine that in many ways the way he governs will be considerably too moderate for my tastes, but I knew that would be likely when I cast my vote.

It's also worth pointing out that R.E. is quite a moderate democrat himself -- a real DLC type. I realize that your worry about him was more about his combative style & manner of doing politics, rather than how liberal vs. moderate he is. But he has proven he's perfectly capable of siding with Republicans & against the more liberal parts of his own party on various issues -- something that I suspect will be needed on occasion as Obama's CoS.

I spent about half an hour trying to find any stories about Emmanuel from around the time of the 2006 elections. I read several at the time, and they all seemed to make the comparison with Karl Rove rather easily. I couldn't find any now, though, and there's no way to search Google by leaving out anything more recently than 2006. So I couldn't find the stories that I read back then. But it's clear that the public image of Emmanuel is that he exemplifies a very partisan spirit, and that's all that's necessary to make my point. It doesn't matter if his views are moderate (although I don't consider forced servitude, even if it's temporary, to be moderate). It's not his views that I'm concerned about. It's that Obama picked someone who is generally seen as very partisan, who has said something flat-out contradictory to one of Obama's purported views on bi-partisan cooperation, as his chief of staff, and he did it less than 48 hours after making a wonderful speech on unity. Doesn't that strike you as a bit odd?

I don't have any problem with a Democrat governing from the left and only appointing leftward people in the cabinet. I don't think Bush had any obligation to pick a Democrat, but he had Mineta. I similarly don't think Obama would have to have any obligation to choose any Republicans in his administration, and if he had limited his comments on bipartisanship to saying he wanted to work with Republicans in Congress then he would have been fine. But he's been talking as if we need to ignore party altogether, as if he's going to include people who disagree with him and voted against him in the process of rebuilding and getting beyond party barriers. So I think he does have a promise to keep of including Republicans in his cabinet. I would expect people like Colin Powell to be sufficient for keeping that promise, except that he picked Rahm Emmanuel for his chief of staff, and a choice as outrageous as that from someone saying what Obama's been saying isn't going to be balanced out unless he appoints some real conservatives to important positions. Otherwise there's simply no way his claim is even plausible that he just wants to get beyond party and ideology and just get to rebuilding.

I didn't say "strong conservative". I'm not talking about people like Dick Cheney. I said "genuine conservatives". Powell isn't one. He's more conservative on foreign policy than most Democrats, but he's probably in the middle in terms of where the main groups fall on those issues today. On social issues, he's probably just plain liberal, and I wouldn't be surprised if he's also on the liberal end economically. There are moderate Republicans who I think would satisfy my criterion, such as Chuck Grassley, who is more of a populist on economic issues (not that I would expect him to give up on Iowa Senate seat right now) and would probably make a good appointment in Interior or something. Clinton's choice of William Cohen would have been in the category I have in mind. It doesn't count as reaching across the aisle to appoint someone who endorsed you publicly. That's being reached out to by the other side, not reaching out yourself.

I do take issue with the claim that strong conservatives have been governing for eight years (never mind the intensifier of saying that's even understated). Most conservatives have been pretty disappointed with Bush, and it's not because they see him as too conservative. There are some central figures who have been pretty extreme in some important ways, but I can name about a dozen important issues where Bush is at most a moderate conservative and several on which his view isn't really conservative at all (e.g. immigration).

There's not much likelihood he'd appoint a conservative to Treasury, Judiciary, HHS, Energy, Labor, EPA (although I really hope we don't get a science-denier like RFK Jr.), or other issues he's run on, but what about Homeland Security, Veterans' Affairs, Agriculture, or Interior? Being a voice at the table on issues that aren't so partisan and being given certain limits but still a presence, one that's really listened to in shaping policy (and not just to make the person feel included) would be a real step in a direction that helps us move beyond the partisan spirit.

Check out this Time article about Rahm Emanuel today on CNN:

http://www.time.com/time/politics/article/0,8599,1857368,00.html

When one of the first adjectives about Emanuel is "foul-mouthed", and quickly followed by "profane", it gives an indication of just what sort of taskmaster he will be. Keep in mind that Obama's ascension is not the result of broad-based Democrats and even moderate Republicans agreeing that he is their man. It's the result of the extreme liberals ramming another liberal down America's throat, and but for the economic crisis that we are now in (and some debate that the Democrats are to blame for the lack of federal oversight that the Republicans sponsored several years ago), we may still be in the middle of recounts.

I agree with Jeremy that, for the next four years, people will associate Emanuel with Obama and vice versa. A quote from Paul Begala in the article expresses this connection perfectly: "Barack is the inspiration; Rahm will be the perspiration."

Well, Obama was elected by a lot of people who weren't extreme liberals. Some were politically ignorant and perhaps were manipulated by deceptive advertising and emphases of the Obama campaign. Others seem to have been members of the McCain campaign who thought they'd lose and decided to sabotage the election by bad PR moves with Palin, including coaching her in destructive ways and highlighting her weaknesses while hiding her strength. But if it was liberals foisting him on us, it was at least not directly so.

I've got a related question, Jeremy. You say Emanuel is "known for much more serious partisan politics, insisting that Democratic candidates should do everything possible to win their races." That's a pretty strong charge by itself, so I'd like to find the exact words he used to say that. So far, I've only found this, which comes not from Emanuel but from an apparent admirer: "'He's from the Lombardi wing of the party -- he's a guy who wants to win at any cost and will do whatever it takes,' said John Lapp, a former top Emanuel aide at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee."* Even in that case, I'm not sure that "winning" necessarily refers to elections; Emanuel has specialized in pushing legislation through Congress as well as in running elections. And "winning" on legislation has a lot more room for bipartisanship, deliberation, and compromise than winning in elections. So I guess I'm provisionally skeptical about your paraphrase.

I agree, however, that Emanuel is prima facie a hypocritical choice for reasons of tone if nothing else.

So I think he does have a promise to keep of including Republicans in his cabinet. I would expect people like Colin Powell to be sufficient for keeping that promise, except that he picked Rahm Emmanuel for his chief of staff, and a choice as outrageous as that from someone saying what Obama's been saying isn't going to be balanced out unless he appoints some real conservatives to important positions. Otherwise there's simply no way his claim is even plausible that he just wants to get beyond party and ideology and just get to rebuilding.

That's a bit tough to follow: Powell-like appointments would have kept the promise (which is what I would have thought), but if he makes those same appointments having appointed Emanuel, then you say he's broken some promise? I'd like to see the exact words of the promise: It's hard for me to believe he said anything that would entail: "I promise to appoint such-and-such, unless I appoint whatever-whatever, in which case I'll balance that off by appointing such-and-such-plus." Against this, I assert that if he appoints some moderate Republicans (Powell-types), he's broken no promise. Indeed, I don't even think he has to do that: I don't recall any promises specifically about cabinet appointments actually going to Republicans (I think there was some vague talk about considering them, and/or making such appointments being the kind of thing he has in mind? - not even sure about that), and would have thought that was one among others of meeting his obligations, and certainly of fulfilling any real promises he's made -- at least any I can recall.

Incidentally, if the issue is working with Republicans, Emanuel has a track record of actually doing that. Of course, that wasn't his job in '06. But when he worked for Clinton, while he generally worked hard at getting things through Congress, his specialty was getting things through where the plan was to use a significant amount of Republican support -- things like the crime bill, NAFTA, etc. And he has good relations with many Republicans in congress -- which is one of the reasons why he was particularly effective at getting Republican cooperation for certain Clinton priorities. There are other Republicans who hate him, but I don't know how much that's a partisan thing, because there are plenty of dems who hate him, too! (Ask Howard Dean about him, for instance.) He's a hard-driving pol who gets things done and, in the process, angers plenty of opponents. But he does have a record of being esp. skilled at getting bipartisan things done, if that's the worry. It's a good bet that on many issues, he'll anger very conservative Republicans, as their moderate Republican colleagues are peeled off to support moderate Obama plans. And it's a good bet that on those same occasions, he's going to anger liberal dems, who will get frustrated with the Obama administration on various issues. Being a fairly liberal dem. myself, generally pretty far to the left of the really quite moderate Obama, and even further to the left of the even more moderate Emanuel, it's a good bet I'll be one of those frustrated by such maneuvers, but I will recognize that it isn't anything I wasn't given reason to expect before I cast my vote. --And it will be nothing new, having gone through such frustrations before during the Clinton years -- often with Emanuel being a key player in working with moderate Republicans against what I would have wanted. It'll be just like old times!

Simon: As for Emanuel being "foul-mouthed": that is my understanding, too. That's not one of my real concerns, but I can understand how it might bother others, especially since we've had such potty-mouths all these years in the current administration -- starting at the top two positions! One might have hoped for an improvement on that score. I suspect that will improve, but I admit that with Emanuel in there in a key position, it might not improve by as much as one might have hoped, and there's a danger we might get another embarrassing Cheney-like moment or two.

I'm trying to figure out where I got that from. The piece I linked to did have the following:

Emanuel Calls Himself A "Vince Lombardi Democrat," Because He Believes "Winning Isn't Everything. It's The Only Thing." "Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), earlier this year called himself a 'Vince Lombardi Democrat.' It was Lombardi, the Hall of Fame football coach, who said, 'Winning isn't everything. It's the only thing.'" ("Chairman Rahm," The Hill, 12/14/05)

I found an unfavorable">http://www.bloggernews.net/13063">unfavorable piece from December 2006 saying this about him (and comparing him to Karl Rove). The author had probably read the same news stories at that time that I had read.

I was pretty sure I had a quote with him actually admitting it in his own words, but even if it's just descriptions of him it does seem to be a pretty common view about him. If my searching has turned up anything, it's that this perception of him is widespread. People across the political spectrum were saying things like this about him.

When I heard that speech from Obama, I found it very hard to believe that he was seriously going to listen to those whose views he had spent the whole campaign fighting against. To convince me that he really meant it, he would have to include people who disagree with him on major issues at the discussion table (and it wouldn't have to be cabinet appointments). But it's very hard to undo hypocrisy, and that takes going the extra mile. I don't think that argument is all that obscure.

If Obama is willing to do things that would require Republican support, then he must be planning to anger the left pretty significantly. Does that seem likely? His actual policy views aren't all that moderate, even if his campaign ads and debate one-liners were crafted to give the impression that he's a moderate Reagan Democrat. It's possible to claim that Obama is moderate, but there's no way to support that. He's got a socialist theory of justice. His favorite Supreme Court justices are William Brennan and Thurgood Marshall. He wants to remove all laws at the federal and state level that prevent tax money from funding abortions. He's no Dennis Kucinich, but you'd be hard-pressed to find another of the Democratic candidates for the 2008 nomination who are more liberal than him. He's an incrementalist, so he may not seek to implement his full vision (and thus will come across as moderate), but I don't think he's moderate at all in his ideal policy views.

Yes, I do fear Obama will do plenty of stuff that I won't like because it's too moderate. (I had similar fears about Clinton, despite the republicans harping away at how liberal he was through the whole election, and those fears were definitely realized.) At any rate, taking on a chief of staff who has a record of pushing through moderate policies for a dem. pres. with rep. support is a step in that direction -- not away from it.

The very conservative, but often quite reasonable, David Brooks has a column evaluating Obama so far at:
http://www.nytimes.com/2008/11/21/opinion/21brooks.html?em

His closing paragraph:

Believe me, I'm trying not to join in the vast, heaving O-phoria now sweeping the coastal haute bourgeoisie. But the personnel decisions have been superb. The events of the past two weeks should be reassuring to anybody who feared that Obama would veer to the left or would suffer self-inflicted wounds because of his inexperience. He's off to a start that nearly justifies the hype.

Of course, those of us who were hoping he'd be veering at least a bit more to the left than this are less happy...

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