Rahm Emanuel’s lessons for Hillary Clinton

If Hillary Clinton wants to read the heart of the Democratic Party as the 2016 presidential campaign cycle begins, she should look homeward:

To Chicago.


Because here, in the aftermath of establishment Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s re-election victory over the progressive Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, you can see the Democratic establishment’s template of power.

And Rahm is its ring bearer.

It is a template so old that it could have been carved into the cornerstone of City Hall, a formula for the bipartisan Combine that runs things.

And it could apply not only to Chicago, but to all big cities, which is why Clinton and her potential rivals from the Democratic Party left have their eye on the city by the lake.

Here’s how it works in Chicago. You take truckloads of Republican money to shore up a terribly flawed Democratic personality — and add just enough fear at just the right time to terrify what remains of the center — and presto.

You’ve beaten the liberals into the ground. And the Iron Throne is yours for as long as your head remains on your neck.

Chicago is all but broke after decade upon decade of rule by the Machine Democrats in Chicago and their white-shoe Republican counterparts in Springfield. Debt is the legacy not of the liberals like Chuy Garcia, but of the establishment types who’ve run things.

The establishment steered Chicago and Illinois into this fiscal ditch. And Rahm is the establishment’s man. And he’s rewarded with power.

Rahm would have had no hope had Karen Lewis, the charismatic president of the Chicago Teachers Union, not become ill.

He was also helped by the ostentatious and awkward silence of Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, the liberal who was also on track to whip Rahm’s behind. But she declined to endorse Garcia, her own floor leader on the County Board.

Garcia was an accidental candidate. A decent man, yes, but he got in late and his lack of political cash hurt. Rahm was able to go negative, hard and early and often. That was the real key to this election.

Democratic Party mynas won’t dare repeat this, but all this began as a political bait-and-switch four years ago.

Former Mayor Richard M. Daley was imploding with scandals and the parking meter rate hike virus. He would not have been re-elected. So the cardinals of the Chicago Way sought out another man.

The white puffs of smoke appeared on the Charlie Rose show, in April 2010, when Emanuel, the Daley man and chief of staff to President Barack Obama, raised his hand.

“One day,” Emanuel told Rose, he “would like to run for mayor of the city of Chicago. That’s always been an aspiration of mine.”

It was done. Rahm returned to Chicago. William Daley went to Washington as Obama’s chief of staff.

In recent weeks, journalists from outside of Chicago seemed surprised by all that Republican cash going to Emanuel. They’ve worked this surprise into their coverage.

But should this be a surprise to anyone who knows of the Combine?

Republicans have long subsidized the Democratic machine. This is the mortar that binds the Chicago Way. The oligarchs and other equestrians have a history of establishing ruthless little men at City Hall, to keep order in a great city.

This is not medieval. This is Roman. And it’s Chicago.

Yet even with the millions and millions he used to outspend Garcia with TV ads, and support from editorial boards, Emanuel’s re-election wasn’t easy. If I wore a hat, I’d tip it to him.

By his own admission, Rahm is not very likable. Hence the TV spot in which he wore a soft and fuzzy sweater and promised to be a kinder, gentle Rahm.

Rahm had another problem. He has no core constituency to speak of.

Still, Rahm was able to use a combination of ideas and rhetoric and TV ads to seed fear of Chuy, and piece together enough for a win.

It is what Rahm is best at.

“You might have to change his nickname to ‘The Cobbler,'” a prominent Democrat said. “There is no core constituency for him. You’ve said it yourself. It’s true. And that was what his campaign was about: cobbling bits and pieces together.”

There is of course, a cost to Emanuel’s victory: The broken political teeth of the idealistic young people of the Democratic left now littering the Chicago Way.

They saw Chuy Garcia, a man of the neighborhoods, as evidence of a need for change.

This collection of youths and the political left is the same demographic that Hillary and the Democratic establishment will need in 2016. They are the base. And Hillary will try to energize them against some similarly situated establishment Republican candidate.

Surprised? Establishment Republicans apply the same harsh force against their idealist young as do establishment Democrats.

It’s all about control. On the liberal left and on the conservative right there are important ideas about freedom and government.

And in the middle there are those with the money.

To the establishment, politics isn’t about ideas. Politics is about keeping the money by wielding the government hammer to impose order upon chaos.

Hillary is famous for saying, “What difference, at this point, does it make?”

But she wasn’t talking about Chicago politics, was she?

She’s from Chicago. She knows what’s real. Money is real. Power is real. The rest is talk.

(John Kass is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His e-mail address is [email protected], and his Twitter handle is @john_kass.)

Also see,

Are political winds of change blowing in Chicago?

Share this!

Enjoy reading? Share it with your friends!