For Emanuel, One Title but Lots of Jobs
Frenetic Caucus Chairman Keeps Multitasking
For a Member who is best known for his intensity and for, as one colleague put it, running around “with his hair on fire,” House Democratic Caucus Chairman Rahm Emanuel (Ill.) isn’t above using corny humor to get his point across.
Like during an appearance last week at the Brookings Institution when Emanuel opened a speech with a pun: “My mother always warned me that one day I may end up in an institution. I don’t think this is exactly what she had in mind.”
Or at a recent Caucus meeting, when Emanuel briefly morphed into a late-night television host: “I don’t know if anyone saw this, but President Bush is now comparing himself to Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln didn’t have a plan for Iraq, either.”
“Quips are a part of his style,” said Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), who acknowledged that the humor can “ease the tension” that Emanuel’s sometimes-abrasive personality can cause. “That’s part of the way he disarms people. … It makes him more approachable.”
In his transition from the campaign trail into his newest role running the Democratic Caucus in the 110th Congress, Emanuel is described by Democratic colleagues and aides as no less intense — all jokes aside — than he was during his two-year turn at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, and no less confined to a single role in the leadership structure.
“He’s still going at 85,000 feet with his hair on fire,” Rep. Ellen Tauscher (D-Calif.) said of Emanuel. She later added: “What Rahm brings is this 21st-century, technology-age, go-go attitude.”
The Illinois lawmaker, now in his third term, snagged his current title under an agreement brokered after November’s elections by now-Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). The arrangement grants him broader responsibilities as Caucus chairman than his predecessors in the post held, and avoided a potentially brutal intraparty fight as Emanuel deferred a run for Majority Whip, the post now held by Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.).
Emanuel characterizes the Caucus job as “a different level of politics” than that of the DCCC chairmanship, where he won significant credit for the Democrats’ November victories that gave them control of the House for the first time in 12 years.
“It’s totally different,” Emanuel said in a brief Friday interview, adding, “Caucus chairman is about governing with an eye towards politics nonetheless.”
While Emanuel’s post still encompasses its traditional role of bringing lawmakers together — “It doesn’t fall only to me, but the Caucus is the one body … where everybody can at least have a say in how the party approaches issues and manages issues,” he said — he has tacked on duties including policy, strategy, communications and even rapid response to Republican attacks.
Focus on Freshmen
Numerous Democratic lawmakers, some of whom requested anonymity, said those responsibilities and Emanuel’s reach in the leadership structure are best exemplified in his focus on the party’s 40-some freshmen, many of whom Emanuel recruited and helped to elect.
“There aren’t many days on the House floor when Rahm doesn’t stop and ask me how everything is going in the district,” acknowledged Rep. Christopher Murphy (D-Conn.), a freshman lawmaker who defeated incumbent Rep. Nancy Johnson (R).
“He seems to have almost daily contact with the freshman Members about how our district operations are going,” Murphy added, “and it’s not necessarily in a political context, it’s more from the point of building our constituent services operation.”
Murphy continued: “We’re building a pretty important record legislatively, but if we don’t have the right operation operating in our districts, then all the good things we do in Washington won’t matter. Rahm has his finger on the message and on district operation.”
While acknowledging his efforts, Emanuel pointed to the fact that outreach, or “Member services,” is simply part of his portfolio under the agreement he reached with the Speaker in the fall, before insisting that it’s not a solo effort on his part.
“Although that’s my primary responsibility, it’s a team effort, everybody’s responsible for it,” Emanuel said, noting the Speaker’s weekly Wednesday breakfasts with freshman Members, which he attends along with Clyburn and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.).
“We are working constantly on things they need assistance on, although I take the lead … the effort to help them and assist them professionally is a leadership responsibility,” Emanuel said.
But Emanuel’s focus isn’t merely on the basics, setting up an efficient district office and providing suggestions for outreach, it’s also a focus on message and ensuring new lawmakers are lining up on the right issues.
Several Democratic sources pointed to a meeting Emanuel called less than 24 hours before Democrats were set to unveil a new plan to rank-and-file Members to fund the Iraq War in early March. When the House voted on the measure two weeks later, none of those lawmakers went against the bill.
“For a lot of us, Rahm is our Svengali,” Murphy quipped, then added that before many votes, freshman lawmakers have sought out Emanuel to discuss the “political pros and cons on particular measures.”
Another first-term lawmaker, Rep. Patrick Murphy (D-Pa.), echoed that sentiment, stating: “Rahm pushes and prods and yells, but at the end of the day he has our back.”
Outreach vs. Whipping
Democratic sources said outreach overlaps with the Majority Whip’s efforts on significant votes, though it has not impeded on Clyburn’s turf.
“Rahm doesn’t go out and need to proactively whip Members because we go to him,” Murphy said. “Rahm and other Members of the leadership have been a great sounding board, but each of the freshmen are making up their own minds on each of these important issues.”
In the wake of the House’s initial approval of its version of the Iraq War spending bill in late March, Clyburn and Emanuel joked publicly about their working relationship.
“A lot of people, I read it, said that I might be too nice for this job,” Clyburn acknowledged at a press conference following the razor-thin vote, interrupted by Emanuel, interjecting: “That’s what we’re here for.”
“That’s why I got Rahm, to help me through that,” Clyburn quipped in response.
Despite that continued overlap and Emanuel’s aggressive personality, Democratic sources assert the relationship between him and Clyburn remains largely free of major disputes.
“The Caucus chair position is always dependent on the personality of the person in the job … [it] is always more ambiguously defined,” said Rep. Artur Davis (D-Ala.). “I’m not surprised he’s had an expansive role. … What Rahm has contributed is a tactical idea about how to sell things to the freshmen and how to sell it to particular Members.”
One former Caucus chairman, ex-Rep. Martin Frost (D-Texas) — who similarly moved from the DCCC to the Caucus post, calling the transition a “natural progression” — said it made sense for Emanuel to reach out to veteran lawmakers as well as freshmen.
“You also have to listen to Members who come from safe districts, who are often committee chairs and making things happen,” said Frost, now with the law firm Polsinelli Shalton Flanigan Suelthaus, as well as a Fox News commentator. “You have a different audience.”
Unlike the House Republican Conference operation, the Democratic Caucus does not serve as the main communication center for the party, although the office is responsible for daily talking points issued to Members. Still, Emanuel more often than not serves up statements on major issues of the day, issuing missives on the scandal over the firing of a handful of U.S. attorneys and highlighting recent Republican ethical missteps, as well as his recent speech at the Brookings Institution.
“He’s focusing us on the issues he thinks will allow us to win,” said one Democratic lawmaker, who asked not to be named. That focus is “not about philosophy as much as maintaining the majority. … He knows how to develop the message and control the message.”
Rep. Albert Wynn (D-Md.) noted that unlike recent Caucus chairmen, however, Emanuel also must consider Democrats’ role in the majority as formulators of policy.
“I don’t know if it defines his chairmanship, but it is a dominant factor,” Wynn said of the party’s majority status, citing Emanuel’s focus on policy issues. “If we were in the minority, he’d be attack, attack, attack.”
But Emanuel insists he defers to Pelosi as the “main communicator” of the Democratic majority: “Other people have insights into communications and message strategy, and I have mine … I make my contribution where I can,” he said.
The Campaign Front
Even as Emanuel is ensconced in his new post, he hasn’t entirely given up on his former DCCC work, continuing efforts to recruit candidates and lending a hand to fundraising efforts.
“He definitely has taken a step back … but he is absolutely still involved in a significant way,” said Wasserman Schultz, who chairs the DCCC Frontline program, which directs funds to the party’s most endangered incumbents.
Emanuel remains active in candidate recruitment, attending weekly meetings and focusing his efforts in particular on the Midwest as well as working with candidates elsewhere, often via telephone.
According to Wasserman Schultz, Emanuel also advises Frontline lawmakers, including some freshman Members. “You can’t provide enough support and assistance to new Members, it’s really essential,” she said.
In addition, Emanuel has remained an active fundraiser for the DCCC, now chaired by Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Md.), hosting and attending functions in Chicago and elsewhere, including a weekend visit to North Carolina for Democrat Larry Kissell, who is expected to seek a rematch against Rep. Robin Hayes (R) in the 8th district in 2008.
“Campaigns have a different intensity,” Emanuel acknowledged. “There are good days and bad days at it, but I don’t think I’ll ever lose the intensity to try and succeed.”