David Ignatius, the highly esteemed Washington Post journalist, wrote a revealing column last week based on an extensive interview with Democratic Congressional leader Rahm Emanuel. In fairness to both Mr. Emanuel and Mr. Ignatius, I am going to quote the noteworthy last two paragraphs in full and unedited:
“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 — Truman, Johnson, Nixon and 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 it 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 GOP power, the Democrats are waiting to pick up the pieces.”
Emanuel’s thoughts in the first paragraph expressing an intent for the two years of the 110th Congress to avoid dealing with the biggest domestic problems — health care financing and Social Security — while far short of heroic leadership, at least falls within the zone of conventional, practical, hack politics. Talk about change and reform, but carefully avoid doing anything about it.
Although, it is quite something to read that Emanuel’s Democratic Party plans to let the (first?) two years of their congressional majority pass by without even trying to address the health care financing mess — about which the Democratic Party has for so long spoken so loudly and so earnestly. Regretfully, too routinely both parties fail even to aspire to genuine leadership. So be it.
But it is that second paragraph that sits up and grabs one’s attention. With America at war and our troops dying regularly in battle with greater national danger and death in prospect: “Don’t look to Emanuel’s Democrats for solutions on Iraq. It’s Bush’s war, and as it splinters the structure of GOP power, the Democrats are waiting to pick up the pieces.” [!]
This is vulture politics. It is so far from respectable that it brings to mind the admired liberal twice Democratic candidate for president against Eisenhower, Governor Adlai Stevenson’s, definition of patriotism:
“What do we mean by patriotism in the context of our times? I venture to suggest that what we mean is a sense of national responsibility … a patriotism which is not short, frenzied outbursts of emotion, but the tranquil and steady dedication of a lifetime.”
But Rahm Emanuel’s Democratic Party is so bereft of a sense of national responsibility that he apparently feels comfortable brazenly telling the Washington Post that his plans for his Democratic Party is to not even try to stop things from getting worse in Iraq — so they can pick up the political pieces afterward. Mr. Emanuel is a “smart” politician. He thinks the more dire America’s place in the world is in 2008, the more likely the voters are to vote Democratic. The more of our troops are left in more pieces the better for Rahm Emanuel’s Democrats.
Maybe he is right — electorally. In pre-revolutionary Russia, Vladimir Lenin wrote a famous pamphlet in which he referred favorably to Nikolai Chernyshevsky’s appallingly cynical phrase: “The worse, the better” — the political view that the worse the social conditions for the poor, the more willing they would be to support a revolution.”
Let me be careful, I am not accusing Mr. Emanuel of being a Leninist (that would at least require convictions — albeit perverted convictions). Emanuel has merely bought in to the cynical view that party interests are more important than national interests.
But perhaps he has forgotten that the art of being a successful party cynic entails not publicly announcing his cynicism. It might upset “his” voters if they knew how coldly he calculates the value of American soldiers’ lives and American national interest.
Mr. Emanuel, when he used to work for President Clinton, was pleased to tell people — including me — that he enjoyed literally swimming with sharks — where on one occasion he lost part of one of his fingers. Being a sharp political operative, he seemed to like the metaphor.
Now he has risen to high elective office, and though he has so far failed to manifest any sense of national responsibility during wartime, he seems likely to live up to Adlai Stevenson’s definition of false patriotism as the 2008 election approaches and give off patriotic sounding “short, frenzied outbursts of emotion.”