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Why can't Mayor Rahm be less like Bill Clinton and more like Bernie Sanders?

Emanuel has governed by taking a page from the 90s centrist’s playbook.

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SUE KWONG
  • Sue Kwong

As with all crazes and phenomena, I was slow to "feel the Bern."

Oh, man—it was just the opposite.

When I first saw images of Bernie Sanders campaigning in Iowa, I figured any candidate who dresses as shlumpy as I do would never, ever appeal to a mass audience.

Plus, he's old.

I was watching him on The View—I know, the things I watch—and as a gag they had him shooting baskets.

Folks, he was shooting a two-handed set shot—a shot that went out of style sometime in the 50s.

I mean, for all the shit I've taken over the years for my lumbering shooting style, let me assure you that even I get at least a quarter of an inch off the ground when I shoot my jumper.

So I was thinking, there's no way anyone this old will ever appeal to young people.

Then I watched in disbelief as he won in New Hampshire and nearly won in Iowa.

And I realized—holy shit, this thing's for real. I still don't think he's going to beat Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination, but he's clearing tapping into a deep and righteous rage over a system that's rigged. Especially with young people.

So now I'm thinking, if Bernie's brand of politics plays so well on a national stage, how come we elected and then reelected Mayor Emanuel, whose economic policies fit right in with the Mitt Romney wing of the Republican Party?

What's the matter with Chicago?

I blame it on Richard Nixon.

More to the point, to understand where Rahm's coming from, you need to know a thing or two about his chief political mentor—Bill Clinton.

Clinton's view of politics—like that of so many other baby-boomer Democrats—was largely shaped by the bitterly disappointing presidential campaign of 1972.

That's the one where George McGovern—a left-of-center presidential candidate—got coldcocked by Richard Nixon's propaganda machine.

Having mercilessly smeared McGovern as a soft-on-crime, tax-and-spend liberal wimp, Nixon went on to win every state but Massachusetts.

And the District of Columbia. God bless the Democratic voters of the District of Columbia—they weren't fooled by Reagan either.

In the '72 campaign, Bill Clinton was an idealistic 25-year-old McGovern campaign worker facing the hopeless task of bringing out the Democratic vote in Texas.

Nixon clobbered McGovern in Texas, winning about 67 percent of the vote. To understand how that defeat transformed the future president, I urge you to read First in His Class, David Maraniss's biography of Bill Clinton.

The chapter on Texas ends with a priceless scene of Clinton and his pals nursing their collective wounds as they sit around a campfire, passing a bottle and a joint—though I'm sure Clinton didn't inhale—and figuring out what to do next.

It was right about then that Clinton started devising the center-based policies and tactics he needed to ensure that Republicans would never do to him what they did to McGovern.

Or as McGovern tells Maraniss: "Clinton seemed to take away the lesson of not being caught too far out on the left on defense, welfare, crime. From there on he would take steps to make sure those were marketed in a way to appeal to conservatives and moderates."

Eventually, Clinton's nimble maneuvers took him to the White House, where he passed harsh get-tough-on crime drug laws, essentially criminalizing thousands of young black people.

Just so you know who paid the biggest price for his ambitions.

Helping him shape and market those policies was, of course, Rahm Emanuel, a top aide in the Clinton White House for several years.

In many ways, Emanuel has now out-Clintoned Clinton, even though at age 56 he was too young to have a firsthand experience of the 1972 presidential campaign.

For most of his political career, Emanuel's shown open contempt for the Bernies of the world and their supporters. It's as though he figures he can mock and taunt progressive Democrats because he takes their votes for granted. What are they going to do—vote Republican?

I'm willing to cut Clinton some slack on these tactics. Like President Obama, he was up against a combative right-wing Congress that demonized his politics.

So he had to give nuance to his positions, as though he was constantly trying to win over nervous voters in some suburban swing district in northern Virginia.

But Emanuel doesn't operate with such handicaps. He's governing in one of the most liberal cities in America and has rock-solid support from a rubber-stamp City Council.

He can dare to take chances. And yet . . .

Not wanting to look soft on crime, he stayed mum about police shootings, even though they cost the taxpayers millions in settlements. That is, until the Laquan McDonald shooting video forced him to take a stand.

His economic policies are like something out of Ronald Reagan's trickle-down playbook. He endorsed tax breaks and TIF handouts for the well-to-do while attempting to balance the budget by closing schools and mental health clinics.

He's determined to stake his reputation as a union-bashing Democrat who closes union schools, opens nonunion charters, and demands that teachers shut the fuck up and get in line.

As for any new and progressive forms of taxation, like a LaSalle Street tax on brokerage transactions? Please—he rejected it out of hand. Wouldn't want to offend his donors.

He even took a page from Nixon's "war on drugs,"—proclaiming his moral opposition to legalizing and taxing marijuana.

Now look at us. We're so broke we have to throw ourselves at the mercy of Wall Street lenders who charge exorbitant fees and interest on loans.

Well, with Hillary Clinton inching left to cut off Bernie's momentum, maybe Rahm can try the same thing in Chicago.

If it's good enough for the Clintons—right Mr. Mayor?

Don't count on it.

Just once I wish we had a mayor who led the charge, instead of running to catch up. v


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