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The Thumpin'How Rahm Emanuel and the Democrats Learned to Be Ruthless and Ended the Republican Revolution
By Naftali Bendavid
DoubledayCopyright © 2007 Naftali Bendavid
All right reserved.
AN IMMOVABLE OBJECT
Five hundred conservatives applauded excitedly as Karl Rove rose to speak in an elegant ballroom at the Sheraton New York Hotel and Towers on the evening of June 22, 2005. This was a heady time for the activists who had gathered to honor Rove and give him an award that had previously been bestowed on such stars as Ronald Reagan and Jack Kemp. President Bush had been reelected five months earlier by a margin of 3.5 million votes, despite fierce campaigning by grassroots Democrats and millions of dollars poured into the race by liberal donors. Republicans and conservatives viewed Bush’s victory over John Kerry as nothing less than an emphatic affirmation of Americans’ support for their principles. Bush himself said at a press conference two days after the election, “I’ve got the will of the people at my back.” The Republican victory in fact owed a good deal to superior political tactics, and Bush and his party were still benefiting from the emotions surrounding the September 11 terrorist attacks, but those factors were downplayed in the post-election euphoria. “I earned capital on the campaign–political capital,” Bush said. “And now I intend to spendit.”
It wasn’t just Bush’s victory that lent credence to the notion that America was becoming more Republican in a fundamental way. In the Senate, Republicans swept six open seats in the South and increased their majority to 55—45. For some conservatives, the sweetest part of that outcome was the defeat of Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota, a frequent Bush critic. Republicans had fared well in the House also, increasing their majority by three, to 232—203. Never had the party’s future seemed more assured. That was the landscape as members of the Conservative Party of New York gathered to hear Rove’s speech at the Sheraton. Founded in 1962 in the belief that even the Republican Party was too liberal, the Conservative Party had become an important political force in the state. The audience could not have been more friendly to Rove, widely praised as the architect of Republican victories in 2000, 2002, and 2004. “It was fantastic,” Shaun Marie Levine, the Conservative Party’s executive director, said of the celebratory atmosphere that night. “When a gentleman gets up and says what you believe, it’s refreshing and wonderful to know he is right up there with the leader of the free world…People went wild.”
The pudgy, bespectacled, buzz–cut Rove was to make news that night with the sort of cutting comment that had become his trademark. “Conservatives saw the savagery of 9/11 and the attacks and prepared for war,” Rove said. “Liberals saw the savagery of the 9/11 attacks and wanted to prepare indictments and offer therapy and understanding for our attackers.” In the following days, Democrats angrily demanded that Rove retract his statement that liberals wanted to offer terrorists “therapy.” It was a reflection of the political moment that Rove shrugged off their demands without consequence, while the White House stood by his comments.
But by far the greater significance of Rove’s speech was the vision he outlined of an imminent era of conservative Republican dominance. Rove was a student of history; his White House office featured two pictures of Abraham Lincoln, a Lincoln campaign banner, letters from James Madison, and a Theodore Roosevelt campaign ribbon. The first book Rove had ever read, in second grade, was Great Moments in History, and he kept a framed copy of its first page. The strategist was fascinated by the presidency of William McKinley, who had ushered in a Republican era at the beginning of the twentieth century. Rove’s grand theory, as he offered it in his speech, was this: American liberalism had peaked forty years earlier with the landslide election of Lyndon Johnson in 1964. Back then, it was liberals who had energy, idealism, and momentum. With the just concluded 2004 election, the pendulum had swung forcefully in the other direction, and it was now the conservatives’ turn to dominate the American scene. “Today conservatism is the guiding philosophy in the White House, the Senate, the House, and in governorships and state legislatures throughout America,” Rove said. “Liberalism is edging toward irrelevance.” He added, “The conservative movement has gone from a small, principled opposition to a broad, inclusive movement that is self-assured, optimistic, forward–leaning, and dominant…This president and today’s conservative movement are shaping history, not trying to stop it.”
That was certainly how it felt to the conservatives in the room–that they were shaping history. “It was natural for Republicans and conservatives to have felt pretty full of themselves after that election,” said Howard Lim, secretary of the Conservative Party, who was there. “It bucked so many trends in terms of reelecting a president and having a ripple effect on his party in Congress.” Party chairman Michael Long, for his part, well remembered the darkness of the 1964 election that Rove had cited. Fresh out of the Marine Corps, an idealistic Long had volunteered for Barry Goldwater’s presidential campaign, only to see his hero lose forty–four of fifty states and get crushed by Johnson. “Election Night was tough to take at that time for a young, aggressive conservative like myself,” Long said. “I clearly thought the lights were going out forever. You feel you’re never going to be able to overcome that.” But listening to Rove, he felt the opposite. “It struck a chord from a conservative point of view in the audience—not just Republican dominance, but conservative Republican dominance,” Long said.
Rove’s speech that night crystallized the triumphalist mood, but he was far from the only Republican to assert that Bush’s reelection had sealed the Democrats’ fate as a minority party for decades. That became a fashionable view among conservative intellectuals, and even many Democrats fatalistically accepted the idea. Fred Barnes, executive editor of the conservative Weekly Standard, cited the “breadth and depth” of the Republicans’ strength in the Wall Street Journal on January 1, 2005. “They have all but completed the sweeping political realignment they could only dream about a generation ago,” Barnes wrote. “In the dark days after the 1964 rout, those dreams seemed quixotic, farfetched, even crazed. Now they’ve been realized.” Barnes emphasized Bush’s growing support among blacks, Hispanics, Jews, Catholics, and women–all traditionally Democratic groups. “There’s reason to believe Republican dominance, absent a catastrophe such as a depression, will last,” Barnes wrote. The National Review, in an editorial in its edition of November 29, 2004, titled “Victory,” predicted that “a conservative era in American governance could be starting now.”
This portrait of the Democratic Party as the victim of large historical trends rather than more transient factors made its plight seem all the more hopeless. Few were more definitive about this than Grover Norquist, the hard–hitting activist who served as the nerve center of the conservative movement. Bearded and bespectacled, Norquist ran a meeting of conservative leaders in Washington every Wednesday morning to discuss issues and strategy over bagels. The power of this “Wednesday group” was such that virtually any Republican thinking of running for national office dropped by to try to win its favor. The Bush White House was careful always to send a representative. Among Norquist’s missions was to try to get Ronald Reagan’s name on as many buildings as possible, to balance the impression made by all those Franklin D. Roosevelt schools and highways. In his official job, as president of Americans for Tax Reform, Norquist had persuaded hundreds of politicians to sign a “Taxpayer Protection Pledge” vowing opposition to any tax increase. A combative true believer, Norquist was given to outrageous statements that a more circumspect figure would avoid. “I don’t want to abolish government–I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub,” he said once. He told National Public Radio that those who opposed cutting the estate tax were adhering to “the morality of the Holocaust.” After the 2004 election, Norquist took his usual nuanced approach. He flatly told PBS Frontline that “Republicans have the House until at least 2012, but probably another decade. They have the Senate indefinitely.” If the Iraq war went badly, it could slow the GOP ascent, he acknowledged, but that was unlikely. “I think it would be difficult to see what would turn it around,” Norquist said. “Obviously some great depression or something could do it.” The assessment was not limited to conservatives. The independent political analyst Charlie Cook wrote in his newsletter, the Cook Political Report, on January 22, 2005, “[Democrats] run the risk of becoming perpetual losers, with a self-defeating mentality to match.”
It was against that backdrop that Nancy Pelosi, who’d been in Congress for seventeen years and leader of the House Democrats for two, called Rahm Emanuel, the volatile second-term congressman from Chicago, and asked him to run the Democratic House campaign. Pelosi came from a political family, and her father and brother had both been mayors of Baltimore. After moving to San Francisco, marrying a businessman, having five children, and throwing herself into California politics, Pelosi had won a congressional seat representing San Francisco in 1987. Derided by Republicans as a “San Francisco liberal,” which she was, Pelosi also was sometimes mocked for a wide-eyed, saccharine television persona. Pelosi tried to soften her image, referring to herself often as an “Italian grandmother,” but she had a hard edge. She ran the House Democrats with a combination of charm and toughness, known for providing colleagues with chocolates and also for rules that punished them if they failed to follow the party line. In her climb to the party leadership, Pelosi had raised enormous sums of money, donating it to colleagues to build a bank of favors, and she had no problem challenging powerful Democrats or holding grudges against her rivals. She had waged a tough fight against Maryland congressman Steny Hoyer for the number two spot in the Democratic hierarchy before becoming party leader. In that race, she had marshaled the support of the California delegation, Democratic women, and the party’s liberals to win the race almost before it started. She wanted to lead the party in part because she felt current Democratic leaders were doing too little to regain the majority. “She looked around and thought these people either were not interested or did not know how to win,” said Democratic congressman George Miller of California, one of Pelosi’s closest allies in the House. “We were not winning. We weren’t moving anywhere. She decided there had to be a different dynamic. She just said, ‘This is untenable. I did not come to sit in the minority, to be stagnant.’” Pelosi badly wanted to make history by becoming the first female Speaker of the House. That, of course, would happen only if the Democrats regained the majority.
Pelosi faced significant pressure to choose someone other than Emanuel to bring this about. Members of Congress valued seniority, and Emanuel, first elected just two years earlier, was a newcomer. One candidate was California congressman Mike Thompson, a personal friend of Pelosi. Leaders of the labor movement, close allies of Pelosi, were opposed to Emanuel because of his role in pushing through the NAFTA treaty, which they despised.
Pelosi chose Emanuel anyway. The two had known each other a long time. Emanuel had been a young staffer at the DCCC in 1987 when Pelosi won her first congressional race, and he was at the Clinton White House when she was a rising Democratic star. The Democratic leader was familiar with Emanuel’s background and temperament. The average House member came to Congress after becoming a respected community leader—a prominent attorney, perhaps, or a state senator. Emanuel, in contrast, had spent twenty years getting his hands dirty in politics—raising money,
studying polls, crafting attacks, planning strategy. He had done this at a relatively low level–in high school he had walked the streets for former Chicago congressman Abner Mikva—and at the highest, as President Bill Clinton’s senior advisor. Pelosi, a former party operative herself, was keenly aware of Emanuel’s ability to raise money. Most important, Emanuel was known to be tireless, aggressive, and pushy. Given the job’s grueling nature, it was crucial to find someone who would never let up, and nobody could compete with Emanuel on that score. “There were many people who wanted to be considered for it,” Pelosi said. “It was a decision I had to make. Some questioned it because he was brand–new. To me it wasn’t a minus he was new, it was a plus.” Miller added, “She is about matching what had to be done with who could get it done. Everything else was interesting, but not terribly important.”
Pelosi called Emanuel in December 2004, a month after the election, reaching him at his family vacation home in Michigan. After saying he would accept the job, Emanuel warned Pelosi there was no way the Democrats could win the House in 2006. At best, he said, they would capture
a few seats and perhaps finish the job in the 2008 election cycle. “Nancy, the truth is, rather than keep telling people we’re going to take back the House, we have to start realizing this is a two-cycle process,” Emanuel said. He reminded Pelosi that the Republicans had captured nine Democratic House seats in 1992, setting the stage for their fifty-fourseat blowout two years later. Similarly, he thought, a handful of Democratic wins in 2006 could pave the way for retaking the House in 2008. Undaunted by this pessimistic forecast, Pelosi on January 9 officially named Emanuel to head the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, putting her future in his hands.
It was less clear why Emanuel would want the job, given the Democrats’ bleak political outlook. One explanation he gave was that it would be even harder for him to do it in future years, when his three young children–Zachariah, Ilana, and Leah–were older. “Given my background in politics, having worked at the DCCC and the White House and campaigns, I was never going to get through my life in the House and not do this,” Emanuel said. “So I made a determination that I wanted to get it done while the kids are nine, seven, and six, rather than have this job when they’re twelve, eleven, and ten. There’s a difference. There is a higher-than-normal suicide rate among members’ kids, when you look at it on a per capita basis. And nothing is that important. I’m going to be around for them.”
Excerpted from The Thumpin' by Naftali Bendavid Copyright © 2007 by Naftali Bendavid. Excerpted by permission.
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