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Rahm Emanuel and Failure of 11 Dimensional Chess

Steve Clemons points to the Edward Luce article in the FT and sums it up thusly:  “Core Chicago Team Sinking Obama Presidency.”

In the article, Luce notes:

In addition to hurling frequent profanities at people within the administration, Mr Emanuel has alienated many of Mr Obama’s closest outside supporters. At a meeting of Democratic groups last August, Mr Emanuel described liberals as “f***ing retards” after one suggested they mobilise resources on healthcare reform.

“We are treated as though we are children,” says the head of a large organisation that raised millions of dollars for Mr Obama’s campaign. “Our advice is never sought. We are only told: ‘This is the message, please get it out.’ I am not sure whether the president fully realises that when the chief of staff speaks, people assume he is speaking for the president.”

Sarah Palin tried to hijack that story, with some success.  But its true relevance — the reason it stayed alive, and the reason I kept it alive by writing about it and telling it to journalist after journalist until Peter Wallsten of the Wall Street Journal finally tracked it down and wrote about it — is in what it says about the failure of the health care campaign the White House was running.

Rahm was directly yelling at MoveOn when he used the words “f*#king r*#ards.”   He did it because they were going to advertise against Blue Dogs for blocking passage of the health care bill on the Energy & Commerce Committee.  It made no public sense, because everyone was being fed the story that the White House couldn’t achieve its objectives on health care because of Those Darn Blue Dogs.  So MoveOn was only reflecting the very direct wishes of their 6 million members, who thought they were doing what Obama wanted.

The White House was doing one thing (negotiating with lobbyists, dealing away the public option) and saying another.  When Kathleen Sebelius acknowledged in August that a public option wasn’t critical to the White House health care plans, Obama’s poll numbers took a huge hit.  And Obama had to reassert his support for the public option in his speech before the joint session of Congress in September. His poll numbers started on the upswing again.

After the speech, I wrote a post about the trap they had set for themselves:

The administration’s inability to close the gap between expectations and reality is a boon for progressives members of Congress. Earlier this week, the co-chairs of the Progressive Caucus — Raul Grijalva and Lynn Woolsey — wrote a letter urging the President to mention it in his speech.  I spoke with Rep. Grijalva yesterday, and he reiterated the need for the President to mention it in his speech.  As long as the President keeps expressing his support for a public option, they — and we — can quite rightly say that we’re only insisting on something Obama himself endorses, something he campaigned on.

Of course, the actions of the White House betray quite a different intent.  The deals they have negotiated with health care industry stakeholders do not include a public plan, they don’t believe they can back out of them without triggering a rush of lobbyist money to GOP coffers.  At some point there will be a day of reckoning when the public understands that the public option is gone.  The White House wants to stop their opponents — and let’s face it, progressives who are insisting on the inclusion of a public plan are at this point their opponents — from being able to exploit that gap.  Because every day that goes by the base gets more and more wedded to the promise of a public plan, encouraged by the positive rhetoric of the President himself.  And it becomes that much harder for the White House to extract itself from the double bind they have created without paying a huge political price.

One day the 11 dimensional chess set is going to have to come to terms with the fact that Rahm Emanuel worked with Max Baucus to cut deals that they force into the House through the Blue Dogs, and that the goals of the White House are not at odds with those of the Blue Dogs.

Information travels too fast these days to maintain that kind of charade when you’re actively working against your own base.  Rahm thought that you could fool all of the people this time, that in the end they could package a “goody bag” and Obama could sell it to his supporters and call it health care reform — even though he had campaigned against the very back room deal making with PhRMA and other stakeholders that formed the underpinnings of the health care bill.  When insurance stocks soared, people understood.  When the PhRMA deal leaked out, they got it.

You’d have to be a real political nitwit to think it was a good idea to tell these six million people to get stuffed for doing what they thought was in support of the President’s health care plan. The one he campaigned on.

That day of reckoning has arrived, and Rahm’s flim-flam insurance industry/PhRMA bail out is dead, for now anyway — and I personally don’t see how they resurrect it in an election year.  It’s just too toxic.  Public option supporters won.  Not because we were “purists” by any means (as Robert Wright suggests), but because we leveraged broad public support to make sure the price of passing health care reform was going to have to mean doing what they said they were going to do.  What 80% of the country wanted them to do, what they had whipped public support for on the campaign trail.  What the House bill delivered. While it wasn’t a great bill by any means, it delivered what Obama said he wanted.

But if their true objective was merely to secure campaign cash for the Democrats by sacrificing the ability to control health care costs for the next decade — as the Senate bill did — we said we would work to defeat that bill.  We did.  It wasn’t the victory anyone wanted, but it kept something far worse from happening, which would have made fixing the problem of spiraling health care costs all but impossible to do in the future.

But we only won because Rahm arrogantly thought that people were sheep and Obama could always stand before them and wave his magic wand and they would instantly fall in line for whatever piece of shit they negotiated.  Rahm’s contempt for the entire “change” campaign that Obama ran on made the gap between action and rhetoric eminently exploitable.  And when the time came to sell the Senate health care bill, it was so unpopular Obama didn’t want to get out in front of it lest his own popularity plummet.

Rahm failed.  And so did 11 dimensional chess.

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Jane Hamsher

Jane Hamsher

Jane is the founder of Her work has also appeared on the Huffington Post, Alternet and The American Prospect. She’s the author of the best selling book Killer Instinct and has produced such films Natural Born Killers and Permanent Midnight. She lives in Washington DC.
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