If he were a fighter or a football player, you would describe Rahm Emanuel — Bill Clinton’s erstwhile campaign fixer and senior advisor; the architect of the Democrats short-lived 2006 Congressional majority; Barack Obama’s White House Chief of Staff; the traditionally crooked mayor of Chicago — as compact. He is only 5’7”, but he trained as a dancer in his youth, even earning a scholarship to the prestigious Joffrey Ballet before deciding to decamp to Sarah Lawrence, and like many dancers, he has retained a trim athleticism long after quitting the art. Like many rich people in general, he has aged with graceful good health. Like many little men with big jobs, he is loud, and he revels in his reputation for combative meanness. Like many political operatives of a certain age, he thinks cussin’ sounds tough. After a brief moment out of the national spotlight, having declined to run for a third term in Chicago, Rahm is back. Joe Biden has decided to make him ambassador to Japan, a country whose professional and political culture famously value loudness, visible displays of anger, and vulgarity. What in the world?
American ambassadorships have been the haunt of big campaign donors for decades now, as the importance of the State Department and US diplomacy have withered and the conduct of US foreign policy increasingly concentrated in and operated by the military and Department of Defense. Well-turned-out moneybags go abroad to live in nice houses and throw nice parties; prominent party supporters get the reward of getting called “Ambassador” for the rest of their lives. But with the possible exception of a posting to the UN, they’re little more than backwaters for ambitious politicians. The last former ambassador to run for President was the Republican, John Huntsman, in 2012. It did not go well. For a certain type of habitual fundraiser and campaign donor, being an ambassador is a nice gig — a hobby for rich guys before they could shoot themselves into space. For the professionally politically ambitious, they are the biggest booby prize in politics. But they are still a prize, a six-figure, all-expenses-paid sinecure in an attractive foreign locale and a lifelong honorific: more, much more, than a disgraced mayor and grubby campaign hack deserve.
Depending on which cliché of the US political press you prefer, Emanuel’s nomination is either beleaguered or embattled. A corps of progressive-caucus Democrats in the House have publicly deplored his nomination, and at least a few Democratic senators seem squishy on their votes. This opposition has nothing to do with Japan, specifically, a country with which Emanuel has no discernible connection and about which he evinces no particular knowledge. Rather, Emanuel is under attack, rightly, for his dismal records on race and policing, fraught topics of more immediate domestic concern.
In reality, Rahm’s nomination is probably secure. He will almost certainly receive enough votes from the rump faction of “moderate” Republicans in the Senate to go through. But there is a certain humiliating irony here. Biden and Emanuel were joint architects of Bill Clinton’s notorious (and now partially repudiated, by Clinton at least) “crime bill,” with Emanuel spearheading the White House push and contributing its dubious “three strikes” scheme and Biden serving as one of its chief Congressional proponents and cheerleaders. Both went on to serve with America’s first Black President: Emanuel was Obama’s first Chief of Staff. But Emanuel — inexplicably, for someone with celebrated political instincts — went back to Chicago to become mayor, even though big-city mayoralties are infamously cruel to aspirations for higher office.
In Chicago, Emanuel closed schools in Black neighborhoods and covered up the obscene police murder of the teenaged Laquan McDonald, doing so expressly to win a second term against a more activist challenger. As soon as he’d won the race, the city wrote a $5 million check to the family, even before a wrongful death lawsuit was filed. Video, which Emanuel had suppressed, came out anyway, thanks to a journalist’s lawsuit. It is almost certain that if he hadn’t hidden it, he would have lost. In the same year, the journalist Spencer Ackerman revealed the city’s decades-old, police-run torture site at Homan Square, and the city was forced into another multi-million dollar payout to survivors and families of its victims.
Biden seems to have transcended his similar historic liabilities in ways that Emanuel has not; he certainly owes his Democratic primary victory, and therefore his presidency, to Black voters, especially Black Southern Democrats, whose relatively conservative views within the broad ideological coalition that constitutes the modern Democratic party are generally under-remarked unless “centrists” and “pragmatists” need to score rhetorical points against the party’s restive left on issues like police funding and reform. Part of this is simply the advantages of a Senate seat and the Vice Presidency, which require none of the dirty and consequential politicking of a big-city mayorality. There is a certain abstraction even to Biden’s worst acts as a Senator, like fighting to make student debt non-dischargeable in bankruptcy. It is harder to run away from your own cop murdering a kid, or for making more people with disabilities pay a private company to park.
And it seemed — despite Joe Biden’s routine insistence that he was, and is, pro-cop; despite the embarrassing theatrics of Congressional Democrats taking the knee in hastily store-bought kente cloth while doing little to nothing to address police violence and carceral overreach — that the ersatz professional-class wokeness of the party might at least lead to jettisoning some of its worst baggage personnel. It seemed as if figures like Emanuel, so intimately connected to state brutality against minority citizens, might pay the very modest price of end-of-career obscurity. But the modern Democratic Party has long preferred its clubbable contractors and coworkers to its hoi polloi voters; unpopularity with the rabble is taken as a sign of integrity, and in a party with a pathological fear of looking like a bunch of sissies, assholes are admired.
Likewise, in its early days, there were hopeful indications that Biden’s presidency, too, would transcend the Clintonian politics that Emanuel authored and that the party has embraced for the last thirty years. If comparisons to the New Deal were never much more than wishful propaganda, then nevertheless Biden gave initial indications of an expansive agenda to firm up America’s precarious social welfare systems, to invest in physical infrastructure, and to make modest investments in forestalling the worst-case scenarios for climate change. All of it was inadequate, but it was better than the nothing we’d all come to expect.
But Senatorial intransigence and Biden’s own incompetence as either a bully or a salesman have pushed his domestic agenda closer and closer to the rocks. Ironically, he seems to lack a Rahm Emanuel to jawbone the package through. Doubly ironically! Because it was Emanuel who laid the ground for many of the domestic political crises in which Biden finds himself hopelessly enmeshed.
It was Emanuel, for example, who created, almost out of thin air, the idea of a “crisis at the border,” when, having outmaneuvered the notably less vicious George Stephanopoulos to take over as Bill Clinton’s “Senior Advisor to the President for Policy and Strategy,” he began lobbying his boss to enact a record number of deportations and even suspend the processing of visa and residency applications. On issues of crime and social welfare, he pushed his boss to undercut the GOP’s advantages on toughness by staking out their own positions: tough on the border, tough on welfare, tough on crime.
As a Democratic party with little to show for its control of the Presidency and both houses of Congress now nervously eyes the approaching midterms, these shitty Emanuel-esque ideas have begun to bang the windows and rattle the doors once again. Though ostensibly on different sides of the debate on so-called “popularisim,” voguish pundits and pollsters from Matthew Yglesias to David Shor have revised Emanuel’s mid-nineties instinct to ignore any ideological commitment that might require bringing the public around to good policy and instead find ways to appeal to a so-called median voter, a mythic character who always resolves himself, under magnification, into a DC millionaire’s notion of what the fathers of the boys I grew up with in Uniontown, PA must surely believe about politics. Of course, these strategies only ever helped the GOP in the long run. The Democrats did not “win” back the issues of crime, or the border, for example. Both rebounded spectacularly, and disastrously, to Republicans.
The one area in which Emanuel left little imprint on the modern Democratic Party is in foreign policy, which makes his current nomination all the more inexplicable. He forcefully advised Clinton to avoid it, and although the Iraq war was deeply unpopular when he ran the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee for the 2006 mid-terms, he recruited many conservative and ex-military candidates and urged focus on domestic issues — a strategy that contributed to the loss of the House just four years later, and which continues not to pay dividends, as hundred million-dollar losers like former fighter pilot Amy McGrath eat shit against aging, unpopular Mitch McConnell.
But perhaps Emanuel’s own comments on his potential ambassadorial posting give some hint of the rationale behind it. In public comments, he has stressed the Chinese bogeyman more than anything particularly Japanese, other than the latter’s military spending, of course. Here, as in the domestic arena, the Democrats clearly hope to turn a piece of jingoism to their advantage: to look strong by ratcheting up a Cold War-lite, even though that, too, will only play into Republican hands and strengths. Emanuel clearly means to position himself as the Biden administration’s tough-talking mouthpiece in the Indo-Pacific, banging tables and cajoling the region into unified opposition to the dastardly Chinese threat.
One can imagine him relishing the role. In the mid-nineties, when Rahm Emanuel’s star was ascendant — he had orchestrated Bill Clinton’s record-breaking campaign fundraising operation and was riding high into the White House — a story began circulating in Washington. Emanuel, it was said, had flown to Israel on the eve of the first Gulf War, when many prominent Israelis were themselves fleeing the country, fearful of Iraqi bombardment, and volunteered for the IDF. There, on the front lines, the nice Jewish boy from the suburbs of Chicago lost the middle finger of his right hand when it was blown off by an advancing Syrian tank.
In fact, Emanuel lost the finger following an accident with a meat slicer while working a high-school job at Arby’s, and he never served in the IDF — he spent his weekslong stay as part of the Israeli Logistics Corps “Sar-El” volunteer program, repairing truck brakes at a base in Northern Israel.
We cannot say for sure that Emanuel himself was the source of this rumor; he always took pains to deny it, although . . . well, you would, wouldn’t you, if you were a notoriously vicious campaign flack who was equally known for stabbing a knife into a wooden table and screaming “Dead!” at a litany of political enemies and betrayers? But it is certainly the sort of bullshit that a longtime political staffer looking to cultivate an air of power and bravado would spread about himself and then coyly deny. It sounds better over a watery scotch in a DC hotel bar than quarterly fundraising numbers. And now we’ll find out how the tough guy sells in Tokyo, or in Beijing.
Jacob Bacharach is a writer in Pittsburgh.