Clueless Beltway scribes still don't get it: Why Rahm Emanuel's win was vindication for the left

New Politico report suggests Chicago's mayor "tamed" the left — which is the opposite of the truth

Published April 9, 2015 7:57PM (EDT)

Rahm Emanuel              (Reuters/Jim Young/<a href=''>marchello74</a> via <a href=''>Shutterstock</a>/Photo montage by Salon)
Rahm Emanuel (Reuters/Jim Young/marchello74 via Shutterstock/Photo montage by Salon)

Keeping in mind that sneering at the liberal wing of the Democratic Party used to be one of the mainstream media’s favorite activities, I guess I should be surprised — and grateful — that I haven’t seen more stories like this one from Politico already. Still, less of a bad thing is still a bad thing; and this piece on how Rahm Emanuel’s recent victory in Chicago’s mayoral election could show Hillary Clinton how to “tame the left” ahead of her presidential campaign is a bad thing, indeed. 

If you haven’t been paying much attention to municipal politics in Illinois, however, here’s a quick primer on what you should know. On Tuesday, former Illinois congressman, White House chief of staff and Dana Milbank pinup Rahm Emanuel defeated Cook County Commissioner Jesus “Chuy” Garcia and won a second term as Chicago’s mayor. He secured around 56 percent of the vote, easily besting Garcia’s 44 percent; and some polls in the days before the election had him up by as much as 28 points.

Emanuel’s victory was so complete, you’d be forgiven for not quite understanding why the race ever received so much attention. The key thing to understand, though, is that the mayor of Chicago traditionally does not have to worry about being reelected. It’s usually a foregone conclusion. But after Emanuel spent much of his first term greasing wealthy donors and attacking unions, he failed to win more than 50 percent in a February campaign. That was not only embarrassing to Emanuel, but also meant he’d have to face the second-place finisher, Garcia, in the city’s first-ever mayoral runoff.

Emanuel struggled for a few reasons — a spike in violent crime not least among them. That said, his high-profile clashes with the Chicago Teachers Union, as well as his prior history of supporting the more “business-friendly” wing of the Democratic Party from Congress and the White House, did not help him. His controversial decision to close 50 schools angered many in the city’s African-American and Latino communities; and, along with his designs to cut the city’s budget and public workers’ pensions, earned him a nickname no politician would want: Mayor 1 percent.

In the weeks between the first election and Tuesday’s runoff, a few big-name outside progressive groups took a break from “drafting” Sen. Elizabeth Warren to run for president and threw some of their resources behind Garcia. But while Garcia seems to be a decent guy and a genuine liberal, it was rather clear from the jump that the success he garnered during the first round of the campaign was largely because he simply was not Rahm Emanuel. On the campaign trail and in his interactions with the press, he was underwhelming. Throw that together with his enormous financial advantages, and it’s hardly surprising that Emanuel prevailed.

It’s pretty silly, then, for Politico to argue, as it does, that Emanuel’s victory indicates “the professional left talks a much better game than it delivers” (and the use of the “professional left” epithet is a hint of where the piece is coming from). There may have been some liberals who puffed out their chests about taking Emanuel down a peg; but not only is that par for the course for any activist, regardless of ideology, it’s not representative of how most of Emanuel’s critics (or the Garcia campaign itself) talked about the race. To many liberals, their merely forcing Emanuel to campaign head-to-head with Garcia meant that they’d won.

When you look at the actual content of Emanuel’s campaign against Garcia, Politico’s framing looks even more overdetermined. It’s supposed to be a piece about how to put those pesky left-wing hippies in their place so the serious people — like Emanuel and Hillary Clinton — could get on with business. But what the article itself notes is that Emanuel won in large part because he tried to rebrand himself as a devoted progressive. (Of course, he spent quite a bit of his time attacking Garcia, too.) According to Politico, Emanuel won by “focusing voters on the progressive elements of [his] record,” like increasing the minimum wage and expanding community colleges.

And here’s where we get to the nub of the problem with the piece, as well as the general understanding of politics that reigns within Washington, which Politico so consistently represents. The idea that a political movement could measure its success by its influence on policy — not horse race politics — is, to this point of view, either anathema or incomprehensible. If you traveled back in time to six months ago and told a Chicago lefty that “Mayor One Percent” would win reelection only after veering significantly to the left of where he’s stood throughout most of his career, they’d almost certainly be surprised and thrilled. Because policy, ultimately, is what politics is all about; you win so you can make policy changes. 

That won’t be any less true regarding Hillary Clinton and the 2016 campaign, either. So if the lesson Hillary Clinton takes away from the Chicago example is that she should devote much of her campaign to discussing the need for universal pre-k, free community college, a higher federal minimum wage and paid parental leave, that won’t mean the left’s been tamed. It’ll mean the left’s won.

By Elias Isquith

Elias Isquith is a former Salon staff writer.

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