(Ordinarily we have book authors on Book Salon to discuss their works. We were approached by the publisher to review the book and we invited author Naftali Bendavid to join us but did not hear back. We decided to review the book anyway — JH)
Update: MissLaura also has a review at DailyKos.
Hi FDL! You are the bestest community evah! I was on a plane today to San Francisco, and I ended up reading The Thumpin': How Rahm Emanuel and the Democrats Learned to Be Ruthless and Ended the Republican Revolution, the new book out on Rahm Emanuel. Jane and I were emailing, and she asked me to do a review. And how can I say no to you fine people? You really made the election happen with your phone calls, donations, creative work, and shoe leather (though don't expect to find any of that in this book).
I wanted to find out, in reading this book, whether Rahm is just an interesting tool of his times, or a genuinely transcendent strategist looking to shift the architecture of politics to suit a certain vision of America. Every election poses this question, usually with one or two figures standing out as key symbols of a changing electorate and political landscape. Every significant election is both a unique event with its own leaders, technologies, and tactics, while also serving as a signal of larger historical trends. Andrew Jackson's ascent to power had economic roots, but with him and his populist and violent politics came the innovation of the modern political party system. Like Karl Rove and George Bush or William McKinley and Mark Hannah, Jackson had Martin Van Buren as an architect of the new contours of power. In the 20th century, it was LBJ as the manager of Democratic midterm chances in the 1940s who pioneered the use of mass amounts of cash in political campaigns from a centrally directed source, funneling oil money from Texas and labor money from back East to Democrats nationwide (yes, America has been run from Texas for a long time).
One could point to James Carville, Karl Rove, direct mail guru and New Right icon Richard Viguerie or Bush Sr strategist Lee Atwater as political innovators, though a more likely icon would be Newt Gingrich, who centralized fundraising and training with his GOPAC in the late 1980s, sought new mechanisms for outreach in his use of C-Span, talk radio and cable news throughout the decade, and reaped the fruits of these innovations in 1994. In the Democratic Party, the least well-known but possibly most influential party icon would be Tony Coehlo, the DCCC head in 1982 who created the first K-Street Project, and recruited business PAC money and the 'moderate' Democrats plaguing our party ever since. Coehlo sold access to donors, and he as much as anyone helped bring about 1994 and the last sixteen years of extremist politics.
So the question on my mind was whether Rahm Emanuel is one of these iconic figures? So far, it's hard to say conclusively where he fits in. His political work on NAFTA in 1993 was truly extraordinary, and though immoral, showed immense talent as a pure matter of political tacticianship. His fundraising capacity, chutzpah mostly, is legendary, and for good reason. In politics, he gets to the point. If you've ever listened to a politician speak, and heard them thank everyone in the room one after the other, you know how refreshing this is. And now he's the House Democratic Caucus Chairman, in charge of some policy work, some whipping work, and rapid response-style messaging. Regardless of what we think of him, he's respected by fellow members in the House for his strategic sense. I don't know if he is good at strategy or not, though it strikes me that it doesn't really matter that much, since he's not particularly progressive and so whether he's good at getting stuff done is less important than identifying what he actually wants to get done and seeing where he needs to be supported and where he needs to be opposed.
In reading Natfali Bendavid's book, The Thumpin', I was eager to find answers to a whole series of questions. What kinds of brilliant or stupid behind the scenes calls did Rahm make in 2006? What motivates this guy? How does he see power? Where are the key shifts in the overall political environment he sought to capitalize on? Does he have an overriding thesis of American politics, like Rove's evangelical boost combined with voter suppression? Granted behind the scenes access on the condition that he wouldn't publish until after the election, Bendavid surely would have some amazing insights into this fascinating character. After all, Brooks Jackson stunned the political world with Honest Graft, a book he wrote with the same behind-the-scenes access to DCCC Chair Tony Coehlo in the early 1980s, a scathing and sympathetic portrait of Coehlo's world, a world of labor leaders, boob tubes, pay-to-play lobbyists, an invisible and irrelevant public, and mountains and mountains of cash. Jackson got to the heart of Coehlo, revealing him as that oldest of political icons, the George Washington Plunket, the local pol who grew up wanting to be a priest, and who wanted to do good by his friends and couldn't see the wrongs in overt corruption until it destroyed him.
Bendavid's book is a faithful if slightly cheerleading recounting of the 2006 cycle. You ride along with the Democrat despondency after 2004, the sloth of the Democratic insiders, the recruiting successes, the downturn for Bush after Katrina, the worsening situation in Iraq, the paranoia of the pollsters, the Carville's, and the staffers, the Foley scandal, and finally, victory night. If you were paying attention throughout 2006, nothing will surprise you, except maybe DCCC Spokesman Bill Burton's trash-talking of blogger Bob Brigham for being polite on a conference call with Rahm (Burton called Brigham a 'pussy'). While certainly cheerleading for Rahm, Bendavid is careful to note that the larger environment was the cause of the electoral wave, and gives bloggers and outside activists some credit. Largely, though, the book focuses on how much Rahm curses, how much Rahm cares, how much Rahm knows, and how much Rahm curses. He says 'fuck' a lot.
The book starts with Rahm on a cell phone arguing with James Carville and Stan Greenberg, who are encouraging him to get candidates to run positive messages towards the end of the campaign. He pretty much says fuck off to the both of them, and the moral of the chapter is that apparently being DCCC Chair is stressful. Bendavid then cycles back to 2005, with Karl Rove's prediction of a coming era of Republican dominance and a fawning description of Grover Norquist's Wednesday morning group at the apex of its power. Nancy Pelosi recruited Emanuel for the job of dethroning them, which he sets out to do immediately and aggressively by assembling a sold team (Debbie Wasserman-Schultz and Chris Van Hollen). He began recruiting candidates like Heath Shuler of North Carolina and Patricia Madrid of New Mexico, shooting to put 50 seats in play (which he did). The drive Rahm shows in all aspects of his work is traced back to his childhood, and his strong-willed Israeli father and civil rights activist mother in Chicago. With two accomplished brothers, Rahm moves quickly through the political career track, serving as a finance director for Mayor Daley and for Bill Clinton in 1992, and then moving through the White House, into the investment banking world, and then into the House of Representatives.
I wish Bendavid had gone into a bit more detail about the 1992 campaign, as Emanuel's role and the way that Clinton considered money is really a key driver of the 1990s neoliberal political system. The NAFTA fight and Emanuel's financial dealings are really interesting; how did a political operative make a quick $16 million in a few years in the investment banking world, and then return to politics? What does this kind of easy acquisition of power and wealth mean, and who is behind it? But Bendavid didn't go there. Instead, like with many parts of the book, Bendavid glossed over a potentially very significant episode to get a somewhat strained narrative about Rahm the conquering hero. The Katrina debacle, the corruption of the GOP, Tom Delay's resignation, and even the spat with Howard Dean are all told with a very conventional wisdom narrative that we could and did get from AP articles and comments on blogs at the time. We don't even learn Rahm's side in the fight over Tammy Duckworth. Apparently he thought that Cegelis didn't work very hard and was upset that Obama and Durbin didn't get the blame for meddling in primaries. Bendavid goes over Rahm's relationship with Chuck Schumer (two political virtuoso's admiring each other), increasing pressure as the election neared, and the general twists and turns of the cycle. With a few exceptions, he doesn't really discuss activism or the internet, which is a shame. But I suppose, since this book is from the perspective of insiders at the DCCC, it's useful to know that the internet as an architectural shift and increased participation of the public was understood more as an environmental shift like the weather than as a phenomenon engendered by people who can be dealt with.
Anyway, if you missed the 2006 cycle and want to understand what happened at the DCCC, this is a useful book. Unwittingly from Bendavid's portrait, I get the sense that Rahm Emanuel, though an extremely hardworking and talented political operative, really isn't much of a visionary. He's just very stressed out, very direct, very good at vote-counting and very good at cursing.
And so, in a typical Rahm Emanuel sign-off to this post, I'll say, "Fuck you. You better win or I'll kill you. I love you."