Year of the Rahm: Get 'Em, Then Gut 'Em

As frustrated as the base of the Democratic Party may be in this late stage of the health care reform battle, few have reflected on the force behind every legislative battle this year: Rahm Emanuel.

In a blunt remark to the Wall Street Journal, the White House Chief of Staff tipped his hand on how he planned to get 60 votes in the Senate: bring left-wing Democrats on board early to generate enthusiasm, then turn on them in the end game to woo conservatives.

In other words: Get 'em, then gut 'em.

Responding as to whether or not the White House was concerned about "noise" from liberals, (i.e., threats that liberals will "kill" rather than vote for a health care bill that includes a mandate, but no public option), Emanuel made two very telling statements.

First, Emanuel gestured to the vote tally by saying,"There are no liberals left to get." In other words: liberal Democrats committed to supporting the White House early in the game, such that Emanuel has long since given up in interested in the concerns of those who support left-wing Democrats.

Second, and in jarring contrast to his first statement in the Wall Street Journal interview, Emanuel then blamed liberal Democrats for every failure to pass a health care bill in the past, "Every time they've gotten close to the deal, they've passed up the opportunity and chosen to walk away from a particular [sic] where they've lost the forest for the trees." By referring to the liberal Democrats as "they," Emanuel makes it clear that to bring on conservative Democrats in the Senate, he is willing to split the party into two sides: those who are working to pass a health care bill, and those with a long record of blocking a bill--us and them.

Indeed, if we recall the way the health care bill was unfolded, the White House began by wrapping their early efforts in the most liberal of liberal Democratic packages: the image of Sen. Edward Kennedy. This early phase of the debate featured liberal Democrats in the Senate as a tactic for bringing in the base and generating enthusiasm. Certainly, health care reform was also Kennedy's legacy, but in terms of political strategy Kennedy was also Emanuel's early game outreach to the liberal base.

And once he "got" liberals, Emanuel turned his attention to conservatives.

Short of Emanuel calling liberal Democrats "socialists," it is difficult to imagine a more direct attack on early supporters of his own whip effort than his inflammatory statements in the Wall Street journal. Emanuel makes it clear that, at this late stage of the game, liberal Democrats will be castigated as the killers of health care reform throughout American history, if they dare to complain about discrepancies with earlier versions of the bill.

"Get 'em early, gut 'em later" is a strategy that leads to 60 votes and a base that feels like they have been sold down the river. And, yet, it leads to 60 votes. Thus, every legislative item on the Obama White House reform agenda has passed, while the base has slowly simmered to the boiling point.

Curiously, liberal and progressive members of the Democratic Party have felt the downside of Emanuel's strategy at a visceral level, but have not yet found an effective way to make it work to their advantage.

Most liberals and progressive in the Democratic base insist that Emanuel's "get 'em early, gut 'em later" strategy will lead only to Pyrrhic policy victories for the White House: legislation so compromised that party activists refuse to turn out the vote in 2010 and 2012.

And yet, if considered from a more tactical perspective, Emanuel's Wall Street Journal interview suggests that the base of the party suffers from a fundamental weakness when it comes to legislative negotiations: liberal idealism leads the base to sign on so early to White House reform efforts, that it forfeits any subsequent role in the critical end game.

Greater end game influence for liberals and progressives, in other words, is about strategy, not ideals--tactics, not rhetoric.

Given the likelihood that elected Democrats would rather stiff arm activists in their own base than be publicly accused by their own President of blocking health care reform--meaning that the current health care bill will likely be signed into law rather than killed--what can the base of the Democratic Party do to guarantee they have more end game influence in the next legislative battle?

As painful as it may seem, the best tactics just might come from the likes of Ben Nelson and Joe Lieberman.

Learn from Lieberman? Just reading that suggestion is enough to make most liberals want to gauge out their own eyes in horror. And who can blame them. Lieberman has become the symbol of political egotism who has stood up and blocked reform.

And yet, both Nelson and Lieberman have managed to make themselves key players in the health care end game by following a few basic tactics. They stay relatively quiet early, keep an ace in the hole (such as, anti-government spending or an anti-abortion amendment), avoid inflammatory rhetoric in favor of seeing ten steps ahead in the whip count, and finally: they have been willing to step out late in the game to hold a bill hostage no matter how loudly their constituents and the media attacked them.

All of these techniques require party activists to engage in some efforts that have not, heretofore, been their strong suits: back room planning, anticipating the details of legislative fights, cultivating reciprocal relationships on Capital Hill, a well-run ground game, keeping one's card's close, cultivating the media, and--most importantly: good end game timing.

Such a complicated effort cannot happen overnight. By Christmas next year, however, liberals and progressives in the Democratic Party would have had plenty of time to take the first steps towards greater influence in reform legislation.

If the left-wing base can stomach it--if they can learn from Emanuel, Lieberman, and Nelson rather than simply demonizing them--the long term pay off could be the Holy Grail of progressive political activism: ending a legislative battle with a feeling of political victory and a sense that they have finally pushed the party and the country towards the reform they envision.

Retooling the base will not be easy, but the alternative is a collective sense of betrayal that spirals out of control, culminating in a kind of permanent road rage at party leadership. It may seem like the right thing to do in the short run, but in the long run, that kind of anger is neither sustainable nor effective at bringing about reform.

Change, in other words, may indeed come from within--within the base--and not just from Obama.