Defending Rahm for all the wrong reasons
My colleague Jason Horowitz has an article today quoting a lot of different Democrats (both named and unnamed) who are defending Rahm Emanuel's strategic judgment. The problem, they say, is not that Rahm has exerted too much influence on the Obama administration, but too little (this is the case Dana Milbank made in a recent column).
The argument goes like this: "Emanuel is a force of political reason within the White House and could have helped the administration avoid its current bind if the president had heeded his advice on some of the most sensitive subjects of the year: health-care reform, jobs and trying alleged terrorists in civilian courts." That advice would've gone like this: Do less on health care, move to jobs earlier, don't try to close Guantanamo.
Though I'm an avowed defender of Rahm Emanuel's performance as chief of staff, I'd be calling for his head if he were calling these shots. This critique only makes sense if you think about the presidency in terms of poll numbers rather than problems. Health-care reform, for instance, is inches from passage. If not for Scott Brown's unexpected victory in Massachusetts, it would have passed weeks ago. We'd be on our way to implementing a bill that would cover 30 million Americans, completely reform the insurance market, make a serious start on cost control, end the days when sick people couldn't get health insurance, and create a new coverage infrastructure that could absorb the flood of refugees from the dying employer-based system. That deserves some weight in this discussion.
Whether health-care reform passes, what's undeniably clear is that it could have passed. When you make a bet, some risk is acceptable. In fact, it's inevitable. As any poker player knows, the fact that you lost a hand doesn't mean you bet wrong. And so it is for health-care reform. If this bill had suffered the fate of Clinton's bill and never even made it to the floor, you could argue that it was a strategic miscalculation from the start. But we're talking about historic legislation that has, for the first time ever, passed both houses of Congress. That's not a strategic miscalculation. It's a tactical triumph. And insofar as Emanuel has, at times, been opposed to persevering on this effort, he's been wrong.
As for jobs, it's evidence of what a strange place Washington is that people think the country's economic anxiety could be alleviated if the president and his party just said the word "jobs" more often. The jobs issue is trouble for the Democrats because unemployment is nearly in the double digits. Unless they have a way to bring it down -- and, as of yet, they've not been willing to consider any secondary legislation of that size, or any pressure on the Federal Reserve -- the jobs issue will continue being a problem for Democrats. Only in Washington could anyone possibly believe that unemployment is properly a question of political communication rather than people not receiving a paycheck.
I'll stay out of the Guantanamo debate because I haven't been following it. But on the areas that I know well, the defense of Rahm favored by some Washington Democrats is evidence of everything that is wrong with Washington: It prizes politics rather than policy, and seems interested in the problems Americans are facing only insofar as those problems show up in the president's poll numbers. In this telling, the measure of Obama's success is not how much good he does for the country but how much good he does for congressional reelection campaigns. No wonder people hate this city.
Photo credit: Alex Brandon/AP.