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Rahm Emanuel’s Decline Mirrors The Democratic Party’s Identity Crisis


The Weekly Standard’s political requiem for Rahm Emanuel captures much of the conventional wisdom about his decision to not seek reelection, primarily in his failures on crime, race relations, and the budget. The critiques are largely true, as far as they go. A closer look, however, reveals broader implications for our national politics.

At the outset, the issues driving Emanuel from office are not mutually exclusive. For example, on the crime issue, Emanuel has belatedly committed to hiring 1,000 more police. But this step has a definite budgetary impact, both in the short term and in terms of pension and health benefits decades into the future. It also will empower the city’s already influential police union at a time policing reform is greatly needed.

Any increase in the number of police and the aggressiveness of policing will likely be directed toward the neighborhoods with the most serious crime problems, which are often minority neighborhoods. Given the historical relationship of the Chicago Police Department with minority neighborhoods, making progress on both crime and race relations is easier said than done. Moreover, this borrowed money is now being spent on policing after Emanuel closed schools and clinics in many of these neighborhoods, exacerbating the city’s often racial politics.

Chicago’s problems are like a Rubik’s Cube, but far more difficult to solve. In addition, while Emanuel failed in a number of ways attributable to his administration, his fate was also affected by the ghosts of the past and the future.

The Weekly Standard correctly notes the spike in murders on Emanuel’s watch, which is a great tragedy. On the other hand, the city’s murder rate per capita is below that of St. Louis, Baltimore, New Orleans, Detroit, Cleveland, Kansas City, Memphis, and Newark. People tend not to think of St. Louis or Memphis as deadlier cities, because people associate Chicago as much with Al Capone or the 1968 riots as they do with Michael Jordan.

Chicago’s surge in homicides, as in other cities, is subsiding, but not quickly enough to help Emanuel. Moreover, while the murder rate is tragic, the truly scandalous aspect of the tragedy may be the Chicago Police Department’s manipulation of the reporting of murders and other crimes to make them seem less serious.

Underscoring the linkage of the city’s problems, the spike in gun violence may have been due to a decline in law enforcement activity after the release of the video showing the police shooting of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald. Chicago paid nearly $642 million for alleged police misconduct from 2004-2015, a period that extends well back into the tenure of former Mayor Richard M. Daley. These sums continue to balloon because they are financed with debt.

The government’s attempt to suppress the McDonald video until after Emanuel’s reelection may be blamed on Rahm. It also represents the final straw for those frustrated with Chicago’s long, poor record on race relations. In 1966, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. told reporters, “I have never seen, even in Mississippi and Alabama, mobs as hateful as I’ve seen here in Chicago.” In 1983, when Harold Washington became Chicago’s first black mayor, the opposition from a mostly white bloc of aldermen in the city council became the stuff of legend and stand-up comedy.

Although conditions have improved, enough de facto segregation remains that racial tensions are never far from the surface. The Weekly Standard correctly notes Emanuel hurt himself by closing schools and mental health clinics in low-income and black communities. His budgetary justification for the school closings has been challenged from the left and right. But while The Weekly Standard focused on the exodus of blacks from the city, the emigration transcends race as Chicagoans flee their government’s fiscal irresponsibility.

Also, regarding the school closings, left and right generally agree in condemning the diversion of tax-increment financing (TIF) — a scheme originally authorized to aid blighted areas — to enrich the city’s traditional political establishment. Daley exploited this slush fund to benefit the cronies who funded his campaigns; Emanuel failed to consider that new thinking may have been required to help solve the Cube. However, such new thinking would have annoyed the oligarchic establishment effectively running the city for decades.

Here, Emanuel’s fall offers a lesson about national politics. When Emanuel entered City Hall, he intended to govern as a neoliberal. He proposed education reforms along the lines championed by the center-left, including charter school expansion, closing underused and underperforming public schools, and longer school days. He hoped to help rationalize the city’s finances by privatizing some city assets and services.

Emanuel’s plans did not survive contact with his opponents. His education agenda angered not only minority communities, but also the powerful teacher’s union. (Much of the revival in teacher union activism nationwide was inspired by CTU victories over Emanuel.) He was only partly successful in fixing some of Daley’s cozy privatization deals. His dual transit and debit card system looked as business-friendly as some of Daley’s deals.

In a one-party city, Emanuel was forced to move left. He capped the number of new charter schools, cut back on TIF giveaways, backed a minimum wage hike, and dropped pension reform. The last was in part due to the teachers, but also in large part to secure a reelection endorsement from the firefighters’ union. Public-sector unionism looms large for both Emanuel and Chicago.

That leftward shift allowed Emanuel to squeak to reelection over Jesus “Chuy” Garcia in a 2015 runoff. Garcia, who will likely succeed Democratic Rep. Luis Gutierrez in the House next year, represents the mix of “democratic socialism” and identity politics on the rise in the Democrats’ urban strongholds. But Emanuel’s victory was Pyrrhic, burning enough political capital to make another term unlikely.

Emanuel’s fall illustrates the transformation of the Democratic Party in the Obama era. The party shrunk considerably, to a core of holdover urban machine politicians being overtaken by an activist base of identitarians and the far left.

We may not have Rahm Emanuel to kick around anymore. But if he makes a Nixonesque rise from the ashes, the role he would play in Democratic politics will likely find him acquiescent to what his party is becoming.