Representative Rahm Emanuel, the architect of the Democratic victory in November’s congressional elections, watched President George W. Bush’s Iraq speech Wednesday night like the coach of an opposing debate team: “Tired, he said. “Too wooden. “Doesn’t fill the screen. The military consequences of Bush’s new policy in Baghdad aren’t knowable. But politically in Washington, it appeared to be dead on arrival. Emanuel’s reaction was typical of leading Democrats, but many Republicans in Congress and on TV talk shows were lukewarm in their praise and a few were outright critical.
Looking at Bush’s grim demeanor, you sensed a presidency in eclipse: He has lost the House and Senate; he has lost the public on the war; and he has attached his presidency to a riderless horse. Nobody understands the new Washington power dynamic better than Emanuel, who helped create it. As chief strategist and fundraiser for the Democrats’ recapture of the House, he understood before most others that the nation was angry with Bush and his party.
Now, with Bush attaching himself even more firmly to an unpopular war, Emanuel wants to use that rising public anger to make the Democrats the nation’s true governing party. With House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Emanuel plans to use Bush’s Iraq speech to pose what amounts to a vote of “no confidence in Bush’s leadership – framing the new strategy as a congressional motion and voting it up or down. Emanuel is certain that it will lose, and that a sizable number of Republicans will join the Democrats in rejecting the president’s military escalation.
Rather than try to restrict funds for the troops (which he sees as a political blunder that would delight Republicans), Emanuel instead favors a proposal by Representative John Murtha to set strict standards for readiness – which will make it hard to finance the troop surge in Iraq without beefing up the military as a whole. The idea is to position the Democrats as friends of the military, even as they denounce Bush’s Iraq policy. I talked with Emanuel about the Democrats’ strategy for several hours Wednesday night over dinner at his favorite Mexican restaurant in Washington. (We managed to watch Bush’s speech only by pleading with the manager to let us watch “streaming video on a computer in the storeroom. The TV in the bar was turned to a basketball game, and if you were hoping to switch to the Bush speech, “fuggedaboutit. ) Emanuel believes that the November election voiced a deep public frustration with Republican leadership, and opened the way for what could be a long-term realignment, if the Democrats are smart. A key trend was what he calls “suburban populism.
Middle-class voters are angry because they feel that their standard of living – from education to health care to retirement – is under assault. For a generation, Republican strategists encouraged these suburban voters to focus their anxiety and resentment on urban minorities, but Emanuel argues that isn’t working anymore.
“Today, the new welfare queen is corporate America, he says. Suburban voters, like those in the inner cities, “are angry at powerful citizens who are getting a better deal than they are. Thanks to this suburban populism, the Democrats picked up Republican seats in Pennsylvania, New York, Connecticut and other states. The Democratic leadership is fashioning a legislative program that tries to respond to this public anger quickly and decisively. Pelosi’s agenda in the short term is a set of tight, doable proposals – raise the minimum wage, ease terms for student loans, tighten budget rules on congressional spending, cut subsidies for the oil industry, cut drug costs.
What’s interesting is that these proposals, so far, have been getting scores of Republican votes. For the rest of the year, Emanuel says, the leadership hopes to stress energy independence (with fuel-saving efficiency standards for appliances and cars) and a move toward better health care for children. And here’s what Emanuel doesn’t want to do: Fall into the political trap of chasing overambitious or potentially unpopular measures. Ask about universal health care and he shakes his head. Four smart presidents-Harry Truman, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton – tried and failed. That one can wait. Reform of Social Security and other entitlements? Too big, too woolly, too risky. If the president wants to propose big changes to entitlements, he can lead the charge. The secret for the Democrats, says Emanuel, is to remain the party of reform and change. The country is angry, and will only get more so as the problems in Iraq deepen. Don’t look to Emanuel’s Democrats for solutions on Iraq. It’s Bush’s war, and as it splinters the structure of Republican power, they’re waiting to pick up the pieces.
Syndicated columnist David Ignatius is published regularly by THE DAILY STAR