“The moment has come for our nation to deal with systemic racism. To deal with the growing economic inequity that exists in our nation, to deal with the denial of the promise of this nation.” No, that was not Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Bernie Sanders, or Elizabeth Warren speaking—it was Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee who once promised a room of wealthy donors that if elected, “nothing would fundamentally change” for them. As first a pandemic and now inescapable evidence of police brutality have racked the nation, Biden’s public rhetoric (and, by some reports, his private thinking) has undergone a significant change from his largely issue-free primary.
Still, one figure has been blabbing loudly about sidling up to the former vice president—a figure any reasonable onlooker can count on to crush the transformational change Biden seems to be embracing and which the country desperately needs. That figure, of course, is Rahm Emanuel.
Late last month, the Chicago Tribune’s Bill Ruthhart rounded up several interviews, panels, and the like in which Emanuel oh-so-casually mentioned his supposedly frequent conversations with the Biden camp. In a Washington Post article about Biden’s Rooseveltian turn, Emanuel is quoted saying, “He [Biden] now has to think policy-wise as a transformational president. It requires a whole different way to think about this.” A bit funny, since just a few months earlier, Emanuel complained on David Axelrod’s podcast, “What Biden is now saying is, ‘Well, the post-COVID world requires a revolution,’ and I’m surprised, because he did not win on the revolution model. He won on the reform model.” No one ever accused Emanuel of not knowing what to say to get in the papers.
How much of this is Emanuel trying to speak his own closeness to Biden into reality is unclear. The Biden campaign was so thin on policy throughout the campaign, and so reliant on outside counsel even now, that virtually anyone can self-proclaim as a “top adviser” without having to deliver much proof. As the Prospect’s Robert Kuttner has explained, the Biden campaign has denied the existence of policy task forces that have been confirmed by other sources. So getting to the bottom of who really has Biden’s attention can be a mug’s game.
But what we do know is that Rahm Emanuel is (or ought to be) a disgraced figure within the Democratic Party. Emanuel was the mayor of Chicago when it covered up evidence of the murder of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald by officer Jason Van Dyke for over a year—while Emanuel was facing re-election. He went to court to prevent dashcam footage of a clear murder from being released, out of fear he’d lose his mayoralty. Indeed, despite securing a $5 million settlement with McDonald’s family weeks before the election, the city held off on final approval of the deal (and the subsequent media furor) until one week after Emanuel was re-elected.
Readers might remember the McDonald cover-up briefly re-entering the news in 2019, when then–presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg hurriedly backed out of a planned fundraiser with the lawyer who ran most of Chicago’s efforts to keep the dashcam footage confidential. If it was a scandal for a primary candidate to fundraise with someone connected to the cover-up, it should be inexcusable for the presumptive nominee to take direct advice from the mayor who orchestrated the whole thing. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine a worse adviser for Biden, after the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, than Emanuel.
Even putting race relations aside, Emanuel should be verboten to a Democratic candidate talking about “revolutionary institutional changes,” as Biden has been on his podcast lately. Emanuel is a frequent revolver between government and Wall Street. Most recently, he went to the well-connected boutique merger consulting firm Centerview Partners, reuniting once again with Robert Rubin. That’s after he made over $18 million at Wasserstein Perella between the Clinton and Obama administrations, treading “a well-trodden gilded path out of politics and into the lucrative world of business.”
While in government, Emanuel has repeatedly crushed any vision of a transformational agenda. Look at his experience with Barack Obama. Emanuel allegedly coined the phrase “Never let a crisis go to waste,” but after the financial crisis he did just that. Though Great Depression expert Christina Romer estimated the economy needed a $1.8 trillion stimulus in 2008, Emanuel urged Larry Summers to bully Romer down to just $800 billion. Ultimately, the true estimate of $1.8 trillion never even reached the president-elect’s ears. Even that wasn’t enough for Emanuel. According to Romer, as soon as Obama left the room where the economics team pitched the $800 billion stimulus, Emanuel turned around and said, “‘Okay, no way is Congress going over $699. You can’t hit the $700 billion barrier.’ So we’ve had all this substantive discussion and it came back to what will Congress bear.”
If President Obama listened to Emanuel, there would be no Obamacare. After the victory of Scott Brown to fill Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat in Massachusetts, Emanuel argued for retrenchment on the Affordable Care Act, proposing to go small with a bill for low-income children. It took Obama and Nancy Pelosi ignoring their advice to find a way to get the bill passed.
Emanuel’s defenders would likely reply that none of this matters since he claims—constantly—that he’s delivered electoral wins to Democrats in difficult years. It’s high time that those defenders read Ryan Grim’s book We’ve Got People, which outlines how Emanuel’s successes were overblown, and how his failings have harmed the party and the country. The 2006 midterms, in which Emanuel claims Democrats won the House for the first time in decades thanks to his electoral genius, were actually won largely in spite of Emanuel’s work. According to a memo from progressive consultant Mike Lux which Grim reports on, out of 65 competitive races, Emanuel got 18 of his targeting decisions wrong, and just nine of the first 22 candidates he rallied behind even won.
Even Emanuel’s favorite anecdote, that he once mailed a dead fish to a rival, is phony: The fish recipient was a Democratic pollster who complained to higher-ups about Emanuel doling out lucrative consulting jobs to his friends. That’s how Emanuel himself tells the story in the book that made much of his mythos, The Thumpin’.
If Emanuel gets Biden’s ear during the transition, he will do everything possible to protect the powerful and sink the ambitions of the populist base. But, again, it isn’t clear if Emanuel is overstating his supposed influence to, in Ruthhart’s words, “keep himself relevant.” If Emanuel is bloviating as usual, it would serve Biden well to just come out and say so. Not only would that prevent progressive and populist demobilization for the candidate, it could even loop in some voters disinterested in Biden, if they see him acting as tough toward Emanuel as Emanuel often playacts to be.
And if, indeed, Biden is taking Emanuel’s advice, then anyone who cares about police brutality, criminal justice, Wall Street’s power, and more ought to give the candidate a piece of their mind.