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Can Obama Rise Again?

Barack Obama; drawing by John Springs

Whatever else we might say about Rahm Emanuel, we must grant that he knows how to make a timely exit. He left his advisory position at the Clinton White House in October 1998, just as the House impeachment hearings were impending, joining the boutique investment firm of the late Bruce Wasserstein and, over the next two and a half years, taking home an estimated $18 million. This year, Barack Obama’s former chief of staff, famous for what the Beltway press typically refers to as his “roguish charm” without ever quite explaining what behavior on his part justifies the second of those two words, again chose October to leave the White House, with evident electoral devastation looming, to pursue his dream of becoming mayor of Chicago.

Toward the end of a dreadful election week in which the Democrats lost around sixty-five House seats (a few outcomes were still pending), the largest off-year thumping of either party since 1938, it seemed to dawn on some beleaguered White House aides that Emanuel’s timing wasn’t very amusing, and they went (namelessly) to Richard Wolffe, the former Newsweek journalist who has become an inside chronicler for Tina Brown’s The Daily Beast of goings-on in the Obama administration, to remind interested parties that some in the White House

shake their heads in disbelief that Emanuel would bolt at precisely the juncture when the Democrats needed to shape their strategy and message during the homestretch of what everyone knew would be the toughest election cycle in years.
“It was Rahm who always said, ‘We’ve just got to put points on the board,’ and that’s why we have a transactional [i.e., a deal-making presidency],” said one former colleague. “The only problem is that Obama is not a transactional politician. It was Rahm’s strategy and then he leaves a month before the election for his own personal political career. It’s extraordinary.”1

Emanuel’s departure, if not its timing, is understandable—the mayoralty of Chicago doesn’t open up to a non-Daley very often. Still, it is worth noting after the Democrats’ debacle because, as Ari Berman’s lively book Herding Donkeys reminds us, Emanuel was instrumental in building the Democratic House majority that collapsed on November 2. It will bring no joy to either Emanuel or Howard Dean, the bitterest enemies in Washington in 2006, when Dean chaired the Democratic National Committee and Emanuel the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (“dee-triple-cee,” or simply “d-trip” to the truly initiated), for them to know that they will be forever linked in the story of building the short-lived Democratic majority of 2006–2010—and in its demise.

Berman, who with his editors (and, to be fair, many of us) seems to have anticipated a longer Democratic spring than was actually the case, has fallen victim to events—always a risk with a current-affairs book. The story of how Dean, the hero of Berman’s book, used his celebrated “fifty-state strategy” to make the Democratic Party competitive in places where the local parties had all but quit even having bake sales is likely not a tale that many liberals are now in a mood to read. And yet it is instructive, in some ways especially now. The story provides a reminder that even with the pummeling of November 2, today’s Democratic Party is in fact competitive in more states and districts than it was in 2004.

Emanuel and Dean represented different wings of the Democratic Party—Emanuel more a New Democratic centrist, Dean a more traditional liberal, at least on the national stage. They also held correspondingly conflicting philosophies, with Emanuel believing that the way to revivify the party during the Bush years was to attract more moderates, and Dean putting emphasis on energizing the liberal base. In addition, they were driven by different interests: Emanuel, as DCCC chairman with a constituency of cash-starved candidates, wanted to win elections now; Dean, the DNC chairman with a constituency of state and local operatives, wanted to do long-term party building.

It was this third point that led to their fierce disputes in 2006 over money, which were regularly leaked to the press and usually by people on Emanuel’s side of the argument: Emanuel wanted the DNC to give millions to candidates with no strings attached, but Dean—atypically for a party chairman, especially one so distrusted by his own party’s establishment figures, meaning chiefly the people around the Clintons, and the Clintons themselves—would not give in. Berman writes:

Dean and his aides feared that Rahm would spend the DNC’s money on expensive and often frivolous TV ads, which did little to build the party and conveniently lined the pockets of the same select group of increasingly discredited Washington consultants. “There’s frustration inside the Beltway because I want to do things differently,” Dean said at the time, “but if we don’t do things differently, we’ll be extinct as a party.”

And so Dean agreed to give party money to Emanuel and Chuck Schumer, the head of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, only if they would agree that the spending had a long-term as well as a short-term purpose.

As intensely as Dean and Emanuel disliked each other, their agendas meshed in spite of themselves. Emanuel was recruiting competitive candidates in places like western North Carolina, where the centrist former college quarterback star Heath Shuler ran and won. Meanwhile, Dean was funneling seed money to moribund state and local party affiliates in some of those same areas so that they could hire organizers. Berman spent time in western North Carolina’s Polk County, where the driver of a pick-up truck yelled to Margaret Johnson, a former Air Force nurse who took it upon herself to help reenergize the party: “Lady, don’t you know there ain’t no Democrats in Polk County?” To which Johnson replied, “Well, there are now.”

The result was a Democratic Party that, across the country, annoyed local political reporters who couldn’t get accustomed to the notion that they might actually have to cover the Democrat this time. The efforts of Dean and Emanuel culminated, in 2006, in a thirty-one-seat Democratic gain in the House. The little-known facts, which Berman relays, are that Emanuel’s preferred candidates actually won only about half their races, and the Democrats could have had more wins if Emanuel hadn’t deserted some candidates he saw as too liberal. In any case, the thirty-one seats gained that year gave Democrats control of the House for the first time in twelve years and made Nancy Pelosi the speaker. The twenty-one additional seats added in 2008 along similar strategic lines gave the party the gaudy majority of 255–178 that has just now crumbled.

Most of those seats were won by Blue Dogs, the centrists and conservatives who feared signing on to the Obama-Pelosi agenda. More than half of the Blue Dog coalition—twenty-eight members out of fifty-four—lost their seats on November 2. Many Democrats and liberals, including Berman, are now saying in essence: good riddance.2 Cathartic though that may be, the fact is that if Democrats tried to rely on liberals only, they couldn’t have more than 180 or 190 seats and would never win a majority. They need moderates to have a chance to govern. So the question that confronts congressional Democrats now is, how many of those lost sixty-five seats can they realistically expect to win back someday?

The conventional wisdom in Washington is not many, but the conventional wisdom is always captive to the moment’s passions (and susceptible to aggressive and effective conservative spin). In 2008, Obama won twenty-seven of the sixty-five districts that were lost in the election, so those twenty-seven might be regained one day under more optimal political conditions. Beyond those, there are a number of others—in the Rocky Mountain region and the Southwest, for example, and in Ohio and Indiana—where the Democratic candidates ran respectably but were simply overwhelmed by the tidal wave.

By my reckoning, twenty or perhaps two dozen of the sixty-five lost seats fit the label “natural Republican district,” the phrase often heard on election-night television coverage. But about forty to forty-five are at least contestable for the Democrats in some future election under different circumstances, and a few more than that might be winnable under such unusually favorable conditions as those prevailing in 2006 and 2008.

This, as Berman suggests even without the benefit of analyzing this year’s results, is the fruit of the fifty-state strategy that Dean created and that Obama and his team drew on for the 2008 election: local Democratic organizations began fighting for the territory that the party of Al Gore and John Kerry and former party chairman Terry McAuliffe had clearly conceded. Add to that demographic changes—more Latinos, more young professionals spreading out into exurbs—that will continue to benefit Democrats in a number of swing districts. Democrats still hold districts in North Carolina and Arizona, for example, where they were barely even trying six years ago.

There is, however, only so much good news. If I’m right about the number of contestable seats, even if the Democrats won every one of them, the largest majority they could hope for would be around 230 to 205. With a much larger majority than that over these past two years, they passed a great deal of legislation in the House, but much of it was compromised. (The emissions targets in the cap-and-trade bill were very modest; the health care legislation had no public option.) And they did nothing about other liberal concerns such as labor law reform. A future Democratic House, then, will likely be less adventuresome than this one was. And in any case, my guess would be that it will take the Democrats a decade at least to regain control of the House, unless Republicans seriously overreach. The power of Republican money—with no limit on corporate contributions—and of the conservative propaganda machine will now be compounded by greater Republican control over the upcoming decennial redistricting process as a result of the GOP gains in governors’ mansions and statehouses. The new Republican majority will be tended with great and well-financed care.

As for the Senate, while Democrats kept GOP gains to just six this time, in 2012, twice as many incumbent Democrats will have to defend their seats as incumbent Republicans will. The odds are thus strong that Obama, if he is reelected, will be dealing with a Republican House and Senate.

One of the most dramatic voting-group swings of this election took place among independents. According to exit polls, they favored Republican candidates by eighteen points, 56 to 38 percent. Obama had carried these voters by eight percentage points in 2008, and Democrats had won them by 18 percent in 2006: a thirty-six point swing over four years.

If he is to be reelected, Obama must take action to win these voters back. Washington being what it is, pressure will mount on him—it’s already started—to “move to the center,” to “triangulate,” to attack the deficit, and to accept cuts to Medicare and Social Security. But at the same time, he faces a disgruntled and despairing left, which believes that he squandered an opportunity early in his tenure to chart a more uncompromisingly liberal course, especially on economic policy. Confronted as he was with a deep recession that could be largely blamed on the Bush Republicans, Obama should, in the view of some of his liberal critics, have tried, at least, to promote a much stronger economic stimulus and campaigned for it nationally.

  1. 1

    See Richard Wolffe, “Team Obama Blaming Rahm,” The Daily Beast, November 4, 2010. 

  2. 2

    See Ari Berman, “Boot the Blue Dogs,” The New York Times, October 24, 2010. 

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