If it weren’t such an insult, the nomination of Rahm Emanuel to be this country’s ambassador to Japan would seem like a perverse backroom joke. Send the foul-mouthed, sharp-elbowed, impudent prima donna to ruffle the feathers of the proper and mannered Japanese officialdom. Bets will soon be taken on how long it takes Rahm, for whom “fucking” serves as adjective, adverb, verb, and noun, to issue his first formal apology.
The insult, however, is no joke. Amid the furor over Afghanistan—and with the centerpiece of his domestic agenda at risk in the Congress—Joe Biden decided to bestow a plum political assignment on Rahm Emanuel, who is infamous for showing that black lives literally don’t matter.
Rahm became the most unpopular mayor in the history of Chicago—no mean feat—by sitting on video evidence of the police murder of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald for 13 months, helping him to survive a runoff reelection campaign against progressive challenger Jesús “Chuy” García.
The video proved that the police version of the murder—that McDonald was shot after he ignored warnings and “continued to walk toward officers”—was a lie. In fact, the 17-year-old was walking down the middle of the street away from the officer who opened fire and shot him 16 times.
Rahm released the video only when ordered to do so by a federal judge. His justification for the delay—that he didn’t want to interfere with a federal investigation—was contradicted by the Justice Department’s statement that it had no objection to the video’s release. Rahm claimed that he had never watched the video, but he clearly authorized the city’s chief counsel to push the City Council to offer a $5 million settlement with the McDonald family before the family even filed a lawsuit. The settlement included a gag order keeping the video secret.
When polls showed most Chicagoans thought Rahm was lying and his popularity plummeted, he dismissed calls to resign, regally announcing that “I alone will be responsible for the actions that I take,” while taking no responsibility whatsoever.
Progressive opposition is widely credited with derailing Rahm’s campaign to get Biden to name him transportation secretary. The ambassadorship was probably considered a consolation prize in the White House.
Rahm’s defenders—led by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Representative Jim Clyburn—point to his years of experience and supposed “policy chops.” He first made his name spearheading Clinton’s fundraising efforts in 1992 and was an operative in the Clinton White House. Elected to Congress, he headed the Democratic Congressional Committee when Democrats took back the Congress in 2006. He served as Obama’s chief of staff in his first years in office, before departing to Chicago to run successfully for mayor.
This glittering record is tarnished only by its substance. A New Democrat, Emanuel is supposed to be the guy who “gets things done.” But that’s a problem when what gets done is ruinous. In the Clinton White House, Rahm had a hand in defending virtually all of Clinton’s mistakes—including NAFTA and other feckless trade policies, repeal of welfare, the crime bill and mass incarceration. In the Congress, he joined in support of Bush’s war of choice in Iraq—surely the greatest foreign policy debacle since Vietnam. In the Obama White House, Rahm cut the deal with Big Pharma to continue the ban on negotiating bulk discounts on drugs that Democrats had campaigned against for years. He also pushed to dismember the ACA—which was saved only by Pelosi’s fierce intervention. He helped sculpt Obama’s futile strategy of squandering months pursuing Republican support when Democrats enjoyed a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate. He joined the push for premature austerity. He championed Obama’s Transpacific Trade Partnership—which was opposed by most Democrats.
Rahm earned a reputation for punching down at the left, cursing liberal groups that wanted to pressure Democrats to support Obama’s health care plan and bleating “Fuck the UAW” when autoworkers had the temerity to seek better job guarantees in the auto bailout. As mayor, he championed closing grade schools, primarily in black communities, warring with the teachers’ union, and privatizing public services, thus living up to the sobriquet “mayor of the 1 percent.”
Personally, he is, as ProPublica put it, a “particularly high-profile illustration of the revolving door between Washington, D.C., and Wall Street,” leaving the Clinton White House to work with deep-pocket Democrats in investment deals, parlaying his political contacts into a personal fortune in two short years. After serving as mayor, he joined another investment firm, while regularly scorning the left as a regular commentator on ABC News.
Not surprisingly, over two dozen progressive groups issued a statement opposing his nomination, citing a lack of “ethics, integrity and diplomatic skills.” National NAACP President Derrick Johnson said, “His time in public service proved to be burdened with preventable scandal and abandonment of Chicago’s most vulnerable community.” If Republicans unite in opposition, Biden may have to do some heavy lifting to get Rahm confirmed in the Senate, but his nomination proves once more that, despite the record of misrule and folly, the Democratic establishment protects its own.