Saturday, October 2, 2010

Weekend Rerun: Goodbye Rahm

Rahm Emanuel’s departure from the White House brought to mind this post from March 3 entitled:  Ideologues, Pragmatists and Machiavellians.

Pundits have lately been paying a lot of attention to Rahm Emanuel’s standing within the Obama administration. Smart liberals like Michael Tomasky are losing patience with his zeal to subordinate ideology to practicality:
“Obama needs an Emanuel-like figure around him. And he needs operate within political limits, at times. But at other times, he needs to do the right thing and not worry about what Lindsey Graham is going to say. Leaks like those in this article establish a narrative in which the right thing is by definition the naïve thing. That may be good for a certain category of Washington conventional-wisdom arbiter, but it isn't good for the country.”
Smart conservatives like Jonah Goldberg see the administration’s failure to heed Emanuel’s advice as proof of its liberal naiveté:
“[T]he real reason the Milbank column [about Emanuel] has enraged so many left-wing bloggers and liberal columnists is that Emanuel’s understanding of the political landscape puts him in the reality-based community. And that is a community the Obama cult refuses to join.”
Such observations exemplify how conventional political wisdom is generated by the application of stereotypes. Pundits turn presidential administrations into melodramas with stock characters. Two familiar character-types figure crucially in Tomasky’s and Goldberg’s analyses:

The ideologue is indisposed to compromise with the political opposition in deference to controversial standards of political morality or sound public administration. His ideological comrades tend to think he’s admirably principled. His ideological opponents tend to regard him as being regrettably doctrinaire.

The pragmatist is unwilling to let doctrinal perfection be the enemy of good, but uninspired, policy. When they’re feeling irritable, his more doctrinaire ideological comrades are apt to disparage him as a cynical opportunist. His political opponents are grudgingly impressed by his realism.

It’s noteworthy that we’re hearing nothing about a third stereotype in recent discussions of Emanuel, viz., the Machiavellian. His commitment to core values is as unconditional as the ideologue’s, but his more refined sense of their relative urgency makes him less equivocal than the ideologue when it comes to trading one valued objective off against another. That enables him to combine the pragmatist’s flexibility as to means with the ideologues’ unswerving commitment to ultimate ends. Machiavellians tend to be revered by their ideological comrades and demonized by their ideological components.

Every administration has a mix of ideologues and pragmatists: The G.H.W. Bush administration had Jack Kemp and James Baker, the Clinton Administration had Robert Reich and Robert Rubin. That neither of those administrations contained a prominent Machiavellian was a sign of their ideological timidity.

It testifies to the much greater ideological ambition of George W. Bush’s administration that it gave such prominent roles to genuine Machiavellians like Dick Cheney and Karl Rove. It needed to give them a relatively free hand if it was going to commit generations of Americans to the prosecution of an unprecedented War on Terror and march the country toward an ownership society with privatized social security, healthcare financed largely though health savings accounts, no estate tax, etc. Cheney and Rove’s influence receded as those ideological ambitions were thwarted in Bush’s second term.

We’ve seen something like that eight-year process telescoped into a single year during Obama’s administration. When he was cautioning liberals soon after Obama’s inauguration never to let a good crisis go to waste, Emanuel was auditioning for the role of Machiavellian-in-chief in an administration determined to complete the work of the New Deal and the Great Society. This terrific article by Noam Scheiber recounts how Emanuel aspired to fill that role by doing whatever it took to push comprehensive healthcare reform through by August of the administration's first year.

Now, alas, Emanuel has been reduced to staking his claim to being Obama’s pragmatist-in-chief. That’s bad news for him, and worse news for liberals.


Anonymous said...

Although I hate his politics, I think Bill Kristol is on to something when he says ( Emanuel was never much of a Machiavellian:

"Either way, Emanuel was supposed to be the experienced chief of staff to an inexperienced president, the Machiavellian operative aiding an idealistic leader, the wizened strategist protecting Obama from the usual mistakes of a new and callow chief executive. Among those mistakes: yielding too much authority to congressional leaders of your own party, who will tend to be partisan and interest-group-driven; surrounding the president with White House staff who quickly become smug, insular, and arrogant; and encouraging the president in his fantasy that he was elected because of his remarkable ability to sway the public, not because the party in the White House was unpopular and exhausted.

Emanuel failed to protect Obama from these temptations. He failed to check Pelosi and Reid. He failed to bring into the White House men and women of substance who could keep the president in touch with public opinion and objective realities. And how many times did Emanuel remind Obama that he, Obama, was no political genius, that he’d won the nomination despite losing most of the big primaries to Hillary Clinton, that he’d run behind congressional Democrats nationally, that his “mandate” had to be carefully nursed and broadened?"

Ron Replogle said...

Everyone's directing me to the Weekly Standard today.

Anonymous said...

With all due respect, the phrases "smart conservative" and "Jonah Goldberg" do not belong in the same sentence. He is a cheap polemicist, and a partisan hack.

Beyond that, I don't think that it's particularly useful distinguishing between "pragmatic" and "Machiavellian." They are theoretical end points on a continuum, and where someone is placed will depend upon the viewpoint and agenda of the assignor.

Anonymous said...

Anon. 7:18: I don't suppose your "viewpoint and agenda" have anything to do with the way you use the terms "cheap polemicist" and "partisan hack."

Anonymous said...

Not particularly: there are cheap polemicists and partisan hacks on the left was well.

But I make a point of not confusing a rhetorical argument with a substantial one...