The latest toxic meme to spread across the pages of my once-beloved Washington Post is that President Obama's Chief of Staff, Rahm Emanuel, is the one reasonable man in the White House.
First came perpetually disgruntled columnist Dana Milbank, suddenly a little ray of sunshine on the subject of the terribly underappreciated chief of staff: "Obama's first year fell apart in large part because he didn't follow his chief of staff's advice on crucial matters," Milbank wrote. "Arguably, Emanuel is the only person keeping Obama from becoming Jimmy Carter."
According to Milbank, Emanuel is the antidote to "Valerie Jarrett and Robert Gibbs, and, to a lesser extent, David Axelrod" who "are part of the Cult of Obama. In love with the president, they believe he is a transformational figure who needn't dirty his hands in politics."
Then came a front-page "news" story this morning by Jason Horowitz fully subscribing to the "contrarian narrative" that is "emerging" -- that "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."
Horowitz cavalierly dismisses criticism of Emanuel as being the inevitable result of his "outsize image" -- and, like Milbank, casts Axelrod as a hopeless naïf:
"Axelrod has a strong view of the historic character Obama is supposed to be," said an early Obama supporter who is close to the president and spoke on the condition of anonymity to give a frank assessment of frustration with the White House. The source blamed Obama's charmed political life for creating a self-confidence and trust in principle that led to an "indifference to doing the small, marginal things a White House could do to mitigate the problems on the Hill. Rahm knows the geography better."
But Emanuel is not the would-be savior of this presidency. For one thing, there really isn't that much daylight between him and his boss, or between him and his top White House colleagues. Had things gone even more his way, it's possible that he would have squelched a few more of what few bursts of idealism and principle survived Inauguration. But people looking for the reasons why the Obama presidency has not lived up to its promise won't find the answer amid the minor rifts between key players. Nor will they find the answer in how well or poorly this White House has played the game of politics. The fact is that after a campaign that appealed so successfully to idealism, Obama hired a bunch of saboteurs of hope and change.
Rahm was simply their chief of staff. And now, this hypercompetitive bantam rooster is attempting to blame others for what went wrong. That's evidently so important to him that he's trying to take a victory lap around the wreckage of what was once such a promising presidency.
Emanuel's greatest "victory" before this one, of course, was the one upon which he earned his reputation: Getting a bunch of conserva-Dems elected in purple states in 2006, winning the party control of the House while at the same time crippling its progressive agenda. This is what Emanuel is all about. For him, victory is everything -- even if you have to give up your core values to win, and even if you could have won while sticking to them.
The Rahm Emanuel that Obama hired is the poster child for the timid, pseudo-pragmatism that is inimical to the idealistic Obama agenda so many excited voters responded to last November. And it's a pragmatism that is absolutely killing the Democratic Party in the long run, because American voters have an intrinsic distrust of politicians they see as tacking with the polls or shying away from a fight. This if nothing else is the lesson of two George W. Bush presidencies: American voters have a profoundly soft spot for people with clear, strongly-held principles, almost regardless of what those principles are.
Emanuel is a Bush Democrat - but not in that he has learned the lesson about the value of holding firmly to core values. He is a Bush Democrat in that he has allowed Republicans to traumatize him into submission. Emanuel operates on a battlefield as defined by Republicans, where the terrain is littered with the specter of imaginary but profoundly terrifying GOP attack ads. His reflexive approach is the strategic retreat. Most obviously in the current debate about health care, he has empowered the Democratic and centrist Republican obstructionists by validating their fear that come campaign time, they will be portrayed as radical -- even when they are supporting measures such as the public insurance option that have public support among a super-majority of voters.
According to the Washington Post, the ultimate "vindication" of Emanuel's "reasonableness" is found in the advice he gave his boss about the treatment of detainees -- one of the most horrifying, illegal and immoral legacies left by the previous administration. Milbank portrays his protagonist nothing short of heroically: "Emanuel bitterly opposed former White House counsel Greg Craig's effort to close the Guantanamo Bay prison within a year, arguing that it wasn't politically feasible. Obama overruled Emanuel, the deadline wasn't met, and Republicans pounced on the president and the Democrats for trying to bring terrorists to U.S. prisons. Likewise, Emanuel fought fiercely against Attorney General Eric Holder's plan to send Khalid Sheik Mohammed to New York for a trial. Emanuel lost, and the result was another political fiasco."
According to Horowitz: "Emanuel made his case to Obama, articulating the political dangers of a civilian trial to congressional Democrats. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. presented a counterargument rooted in principle, for civilian trials."
The obvious conclusion: Obama should have taken Emanuel's advice, based on pure political calculation, rather than heeding the foolhardy, deeply-held ethical, legal and moral arguments made by his top legal advisers. The Post's endorsement of this argument is nothing short of obscene. It embraces rather than condemns the notion that political considerations should legitimately trump all others. It is the Post's endorsement of Karl Rovism..
Indeed, the most remarkable spectacle here is the ease with which Emanuel has been able to find reliable vessels to carry his water. Oh, to see his media speed-dial, and its collection of nattering process junkies, smug contrarians, split-the-difference stenographers, center-worshipping priests of High Broderism and corporatist cocktail-partiers who enable Emanuel's brand of soulless political gamesmanship.
To Emanuel, victory is the only thing, and rather than recognize the error of his ways and recalibrate, he is publicly declaring that the now widely-recognized enfeeblement of his boss's presidency is not his failure, but his vindication. Hail Emanuel triumphant.