If, as the speculation has it, Rahm Emanuel becomes Obama’s new chief of staff, it’ll strike a discordant note, at least in one respect. As a candidate, Obama spoke endlessly–particularly during the Democratic primary–of ushering in a new era in politics. He was going to “turn the page” on the partisanship, anger, and divisive tactics of the past. And so forth. Yet, in offering the job to Emanuel, Obama has turned to one of the most ruthless and fierce partisans on the political landscape.
One person I know who worked in the first Clinton term wrote me an e-mail in which he said, in part, “Rahm is the toughest, meanest partisan I ever worked with.” That seems to be a consensus view. Dick Morris was on The O’Reilly Factor saying that, based on his experience of working with Emanuel in the Clinton White House, he is rightly considered a vicious partisan. In his book All Too Human, George Stephanopoulos, writing about the 1992 campaign, says, “All I knew about Emanuel at first was that he had once mailed a dead fish to a rival political consultant. But when the former ballet dancer arrived in Little Rock and leaped onto a table to scream his staff into shape, I knew the money side would be OK.” And we learn of Emanuel’s disappointment when Mario Cuomo decided against running for President that year. “Damn. It would have been so great if he came in. We’d rip his head off.” And perhaps most revealingly of all, former Clinton aide Paul Begala, a man who rivals Emanuel when it comes to bitter partisanship, was singing Emanuel’s praises on CNN. (According to this story, Begala describes Emanuel’s aggressive style as a “cross between a hemorrhoid and a toothache.” High praise!)
A person like Emanuel might qualify for a job like DNC chairman, but, as my Ethics and Public Policy colleague Yuval Levin explains here, the choice of Emanuel as chief of staff would be quite troubling. That job sets the tone for the Administration in so many ways and sends signals to the entire White House staff of what the attitude and ethos will be.
One of the things that is becoming increasingly clear is that Barack Obama is a very difficult person to unravel. He is amazingly self-contained and something of a solitary figure. We don’t really know what to expect from him. As he is our future President, we should, within reason, give him the benefit of the doubt. But that doesn’t mean suspending our critical faculties. And it’s fair to say, I think, that if Rahm Emanuel is chosen as chief of staff, the promise of a new and more uplifting era in politics may be revealed as a mirage. If Emanuel embodies the “new politics” of the Obama era, it may well make the old politics seem like a garden party.