Rahm Emanuel quits Chicago, but can the Democratic Party quit him?

Once an exemplar of Democratic party politics, his well-worn philosophy bottomed out in the Windy City. That might not be enough to discredit it.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel (D) is walking away. CREDIT: Joshua Lott/Getty Images
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel (D) is walking away. CREDIT: Joshua Lott/Getty Images

On Tuesday, incumbent Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel issued a surprise announcement: He would not, as many expected, seek a third term as mayor of Chicago. The shock announcement prompted radically different reactions. Working-class locals largely rejoiced at the news. The local business press, on the other hand, wore their frowns so tight that they risked pulling a muscle.

But while Emanuel may be retreating from public service after almost three decades, it remains an open question as to whether he will take his malign influence over Democratic Party thinking with him on the way out the door.

The Creed of High Emanuelism can be fairly summarized as “debt service uber alles.” Those tetchy about borrowing will find the philosophical tools necessary to resist proposals that might raise the material quality of life of modern wage serfs.

Those so illuminated hew to a higher set of beliefs. Charter schools are a superior option to public schools because someone else is underwriting them. It’s just to strip guarantees of basic financial security from people who lose their jobs because the alternative is expensive. Universal preschool might sound nice as a cure to the exclusionary expenses of private childcare, but unless there is something that costs $90 billion for the government to stop doing — well, you’re just not being realistic.


Emanuel did install universal pre-kindergarten and kindergarten for Chicago kids, by the by. But because the doctrine he represents means some rain’s gotta fall in your neighbor’s yard if you want it sunny in yours, the city was made to draw blood from other stones. Sometimes that meant cutting off services. Sometimes it meant charging taxpayers more for them.

One of Rahm’s first revenue-raising proposals in 2012 hiked the penalties imposed on drivers who forgot to renew a city parking sticker. At the time, jacking the fine for missing the annual renewal cutoff for your car from $120 to $200 was marketed to Chicagoans as a $16 million annual bump in city revenue. In practice, however, it didn’t deliver even half of that windfall, a ProPublica and WBEZ investigation found, but it did drive thousands of black residents into bankruptcy.

On the savings side, Rahm’s early decisions bore a similar haves and have-nots divisiveness. He shredded the city’s public mental health services to save $3 million, and closed 49 public schools to save hundreds of millions more.

But the real swindle involves something called tax increment financing (TIF). The policy tool effectively escrows all future increases in revenue from a given tax – usually property levies – for the mayor’s office to dish out as it pleases. If the collections level prior to the TIF siphoning is sufficient to pay for schools, trash collection, and emergency services in future years, the public doesn’t notice much of a downside. But when those costs grow, the associated growth in tax collections can’t be tapped to cover the basics.

And Emanuel was especially aggressive in his use of TIF accounts. The total siphoned away from schools and other baseline services hit $561 million in 2016 alone and jumped to $660 million – a third of all property tax collected by Chicago – in 2017. Because Rahm’s policies prevent that money from going to the struggling school system, CPS had to seek a state bailout worth well over $200 million in 2016.


The flood of cash into TIF accounts put the lie to the crisis narrative propagated by those in favor of cutting back public education services and diverting more public dollars to charter school organizations like UNO, the venerable Latinx organizing network in Chicago that rapidly built 16 charters and used state and city money to give lucrative construction contracts to family members of both board members and local pols to whom it owed favors.

So, there are those who do profit from Emanuelism. But they tend to be private entities. During Emanuel’s tenure, TIF pelf flowed into shiny entertainment districts instead of the blighted neighborhoods pitched as the policy’s priority recipient. It went to health care companies instead of public mental health facilities. It was routed to tourist attractions like the city’s Navy Pier rehabilitation instead of the after-school programs and mentoring services and skills-building programs for adults that locals in the city’s struggling communities of color have long sought. This shuffling of public dollars into private hands delivered some job growth, though not dramatically more than could be derived from a more responsible, communal allocation. And all the while, those who could not get their kid into the glossy new charters watched the schools and community services in their neighborhoods wither under the ever-increasing pressures manufactured by the tax revenue diversion scheme.

Chicago’s specific story under Emanuelism has enough scandalous ins and outs to numb the mind, and raking through the wonky weeds beneath it all could carry more than a few book proposals. But it all follows the same logic that has infused the national Democratic party since Rahm’s first White House stint in the 90s, and even earlier for many in the party.

Rahm’s long, national tail

The ideological and tactical tensions within the Democratic Party are typically portrayed as an issue of personalities. Campaign strategists tend prefer this simplistic, reductive framing of disputes; it suits their objectives to reduce their sloganeering to poll-tested superficialities.

It’s impossible to understand how Rahm fits into that malign framing of American politics without beginning from a superficial perspective: the country’s overall political outlook at the end of President George W. Bush’s time in office.


For a certain generation of young people in the Bush years who imagined futures in politics, Emanuel was a hero of sorts. A practical hands-in-the-dirt doer, yes, but more importantly a sharp-tongued disciplinarian inside a party that mostly blamed Ralph Nader for an election where Al Gore failed to win his home state. Rahm’s career looked like the blueprint for people eager to rescue everything from civil liberties to foreign relations to poverty policy from the all-snaring jingoism of the post-9/11, post Bush v Gore world. If people who proudly nursed their Bush-era sorrows by watching The West Wing saw John McCain as symbolic of a stubborn bipartisan rationality, Rahm stood as the exemplar for the another subset of those fantasists — those annoyed the show hadn’t aired on HBO so the characters could cuss like sailors.

Years later, though, it’s easy to see how shortsighted the Rahm-worship was. Party discipline to win elections is one thing, but denuding that party’s ideas cabinet of its keenest, boldest proposals once it actually wins governing power is quite another.

Barack Obama’s presidency came frontloaded with a Sorkiny sheen that suggested a golden age of unleashing progressive policy was on the wing. But as the poetry of campaigning deferred to the prose of governing, the pressure to retreat from idealism was laid on the president. Emanuel was a central figure in that retreat, and the contretemps over the Obamacare “public-option” was perhaps the most high-profile example of Rahm’s eagerness to tie one of Obama’s hands before negotiating with Republicans — themselves bent on maximal intransigence from the outset — over Obama’s sundry campaign promises.

Emanuel’s approach to politics could have hardly come as a surprise. Long before he returned to Chicago, Rahm spent years as a prime mover for imposing a conciliatory approach to Democratic policymaking in Washington. He spent five years as a senior adviser in the Clinton White House when the party’s tendency toward political self-harm was dubbed “triangulation” and praised as savvy. After a profitable interlude in the financial industry, he held Illinois’ 5th District congressional seat for three terms. Muscular enough in that short tenure to turn heads, he was handed the party reins for House campaigning ahead of the 2006 midterms, burnishing his reputation further when his Democratic charges finally retook the chamber after a dozen years of Republican rule.

When Obama needed a chief of staff, he installed Emanuel. Arriving at the depths of an economic crisis brought on by the same financial sector mavens that plumped his own bank accounts, Emanuel quickly set about blunting progressive instincts in the new administration. When Christina Romer called for a larger stimulus package, less focused on unproductive tax incentives, Emanuel was there to cut her legs out. “What are you smoking?” he retorted after one early Romer pitch to go big.

The ensuing recovery was the slowest in American economic history, and among the most unequal. By 2013, Berkeley economics professor Emmanuel Saez calculated that “the top 1 percent” had captured “121 percent of the income gains in the first two years of the recovery.” Those lower on the economic totem pole fared less well. As Annie Lowrey reported in September of 2013, while the incomes of the bottom 99 percent had “started growing again — if only by 1 percent,” they were being lapped by their more well-heeled peers — the top 1 percent enjoyed a 20 percent surge, while the top 0.01 percent glided into the new Gilded Age on a tidy 32 percent gain in income.

At the same time, the sorts of policies that should have been proving grounds for Emanuel’s capacity to whip friends into shape and force pre-compromised versions of progressive policy through a narrowly balanced legislature instead fell to ruin. Card check legislation that could have revitalized union organizing died quietly. Cap-and-trade climate ideas premised on harnessing market forces to combat humanity’s primary existential threat at minimal public cost – the exact sort of capitalism-friendly version of public-interest rule that Emanuel’s ilk are supposed to specialize in – perished as well, although with a bit more noise.

Rahm left the Chief of Staff job after 18 months to run for mayor, conveniently taking him away from Washington just before the Tea Party wave destroyed whatever was left of Obama’s legislative elbow room. But the telltale creases of Emanuelism run across Obama’s entire approach to politics and policy over his eight years. A disastrous budget deal that capped public service investments from the federal level for years, a simmering terror about borrowing levels that was premised in part on flat-wrong mathematics by high-profile economists, a tawdry kabuki version of accountability for the bankers who’d crashed the housing market – they’re all consistent with the Rahmian worldview shared by the same generation of Democratic Party know-it-alls that rose, and then fell…to Donald Trump.

Two years on from Obama’s tenure, there has been ample time to learn some necessary lessons. It’s not clear an exhaustive retrospective has been undertaken. The same day Rahm shocked Chicago politics by quitting the race, Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) pledged to retain the “pay-as-you-go” policies she imposed during her last tenure as Speaker of the House should she get the job again. That policy, requiring that any penny of new spending be offset with cuts or new taxes elsewhere, sabotages the agenda being offered by those candidates currently thought to be engineering a coming “Blue Wave.” And it is Emanuelism enshrined in caucus-wide policy, a promise to always fight with one hand tied against Republican counterparts perceived as reasonable, good-faith partners.

If there’s a lesson to be taken from Rahm’s decision to step aside this week in Chicago, it’s that these philosophical weaknesses in Democrats’ theories of change are the proper venue for debating the party’s future – not the attendant cults of personality, or the theatrical mise-en-scene of The Resistance, or the tired bleats of mainstream pundits who, sniffing the nascent scent of a socialist revival, eagerly turn out to participate in a red-bait cosplay re-enactment. Those distractions only perpetuate the idea that the most important matter to be resolved is who’s up and who’s down in the party hierarchy, rather than what the Democrats believe needs to be done in the real world.

The loser in that cozy symbiosis is substance. The Democratic Party’s civil war isn’t actually about differentials in the chummy fellow-feeling that Hillary or Bernie engender in voters. It is about whose skin should matter first when government has to choose who to help and how. That war’s been on for thirty years, not three. And Rahm Emanuel was a decorated field general for the side that’s won that fight at every modern turn: The Democrats who care more about the people to whom we owe money than about the far larger, materially disadvantaged group on whom money might be better spent.