Rahm Emanuel’s Japan confirmation hearing spotlights Democratic tensions

Ex-Chicago mayor faces objections from progressives

Former Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel will face senators Wednesday at his confirmation hearing to be U.S. ambassador to Japan. (Steven Ferdman/Getty Images file photo)
Former Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel will face senators Wednesday at his confirmation hearing to be U.S. ambassador to Japan. (Steven Ferdman/Getty Images file photo)
Posted October 19, 2021 at 11:32am

Former Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s confirmation hearing Wedneday before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for his nomination to be the U.S. ambassador to Japan is drawing above-average attention, and not because of the importance Tokyo plays in Washington’s global alliance system.

Despite Emanuel’s years as a skilled and ruthless practitioner of partisan politics in Washington, including as a top House Democrat and as President Barack Obama’s first chief of staff, his nomination to the prestigious and highly sought-after ambassadorship has drawn the strongest ire from members of his own party.  

While no Senate Democrat has yet to come out against Emanuel’s nomination, several progressive House Democrats have, in addition to a few progressive activist groups. It is unclear whether they will have sway with senators, who are the only lawmakers who vote on nominees to be U.S. diplomats.

Emanuel, who led Democrats’ successful effort to take back the House in the 2006 midterms, has racked up support from his former colleagues there, including the House’s top three Democratic leaders. He also has the backing of his home state of Illinois’ two senators: Richard J. Durbin, the No. 2 Senate Democrat; and Tammy Duckworth.

The chief objection that progressives have to Emanuel’s nomination is that as mayor of Chicago, his administration suppressed the release for more than a year of a dashboard video that showed a white police officer’s fatal 2014 shooting of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald, who was Black, as the teenager walked away. At the time, Emanuel was running for reelection.

But even if a few Democratic senators were to peel off from supporting Emanuel, the backing he’s already won from several Republicans, including Susan Collins of Maine and Bill Hagerty of Tennessee — who himself served as ambassador to Japan during the Trump administration — should be enough to cinch his confirmation.

Emanuel is well known for his short temper, which would seem to make him an unusual fit for the post of ambassador to Japan, where the political and diplomatic culture is famously protocol-heavy, deferential and conflict-averse. On the other hand, Emanuel is well versed in trade matters, and he has that critical quality the Japanese most prize: a direct line to the White House.

Asked in September about progressive activists’ argument that Emanuel’s role in suppressing the release of video in the police killing of McDonald should disqualify him from the ambassadorship, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki responded: “The reason the president nominated Rahm Emanuel to serve as ambassador to Japan is that he has a record of extensive experience as a public servant, as somebody who was elected in Congress, and he thinks he would be somebody who would represent the U.S. interests in Japan.”

Some liberal Democrats also dislike Emanuel for his years of pushing centrist and corporate-friendly policies. As an adviser in the Clinton White House, he played a key role in pushing through the North American Free Trade Agreement. During the 2020 Democratic presidential primary, Emanuel was withering in his criticism of progressives’ goal of achieving “Medicare for All,” calling it a “pipe dream.”

Among the progressives opposing Emanuel are Reps. Cori Bush of Missouri, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Mondaire Jones of New York.

“As Black Americans, we find the Biden administration’s decision to nominate him not only professionally and politically indefensible, but personally offensive,” Bush and Jones said in a joint statement.

Kina Collins, an anti-gun violence activist who has launched a primary challenge to Chicago-area Democratic Rep. Danny K. Davis with the backing of progressive group Justice Democrats, blasted the timing of Emanuel’s confirmation hearing.

“To hold this hearing this Wednesday, the day that marks the 7-year anniversary of Laquan’s murder, is unthinkably callous,” she said in a statement. “It is the result of a system that consistently and relentlessly devalues Black lives.”

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee is holding confirmation hearings on Wednesday for several nominees for other diplomatic posts in Asia and Africa, including Nicholas Burns to be ambassador to China.