Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Obama's GOP Problem - The Myth of Rough & Tumble Chicago Politics

Political fights in Chicago are for the most part intramural affairs. They are famously raucous, play out at high volume and are sometimes genuinely ugly. But it’s Democrat on Democrat, and it always has been.

Perhaps that is part of the reason President Obama and his Chicago-based inner circle have had so much difficulty dealing with intractable Republican opposition and ideological warfare on the national stage.

Political fights in Chicago are about money, jobs, turf, access, contracts and bragging rights.

Ideological battles are left to the reform types – the “goo-goos,” in the local parlance - along with the Washington crowd and the news media. And what the Republicans are up to has never been of much interest to the Democratic power elite in Chicago.

That elite is the political world that shaped Barack Obama and his closest advisors, including White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, Senior Advisor David Axelrod and Senior Advisor Valerie Jarrett.

Axelrod and Emanuel have logged plenty of time on the national political stage but, like Jarrett, their roots are in the last campaign of the late Mayor Harold Washington and in service to current Mayor Richard M. Daley, who has held that job since 1989.

Richie Daley’s Chicago is an insular world, a tribal network of loyalties, delivery of constituent services, off- and on-the-book enterprises and mutual self-interests where Republicans are largely viewed as potential business partners.

Still, the “city of the big shoulders” bravado has its rhetorical uses.

Coming to Washington after a historic and impressive trouncing of the McCain-Palin ticket - and of Hillary Rodham Clinton – the Obama team made it known that their approach would be an artful mix of the President’s charm and intelligence and a healthy dose of the brawling Chicago style.

In April 2008, Emanuel burnished the tough-guy legend, telling U.S. News & World Report, “Politics in Chicago is an all-season sport, and it’s not for the faint-hearted.”

“Ours is a blunt, brawling way,” Axelrod said in the same story, noting the “people are up front about their self interests.”

Early on, Republicans and assorted editorial writers voiced dismay at the tough-talking presence of Emanuel in the Oval Office, presumably playing the enforcer with Democrats and Republicans alike.

But one year later, after the misadventures of health care reform and the Massachusetts Senate debacle, it’s clear that no one in Washington in either party is afraid of these people.

To many, the Obama team seemed paralyzed by the braying chorus of GOP opposition. His attempts to garner GOP support for his economic stimulus bill, for Judge Sonia Sotomayor, for health care reform and other initiatives were meet with implacable opposition and, often, mockery.

Silence mixed with quiet assurances of behind-the-scenes negotiations by the Administration played out as conservative “teabaggers” ruled the summer of ’09, Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) discussed “breaking the presidency,” and a GOP House member felt comfortable yelling “you lie” at Obama on national television.

How could this have happened?

It is possible that for all his talents Obama has been unable to throw a political punch at his national GOP opponents because he has never had to, and doesn’t know how.

For generations Chicago has dined out on a tough, partisan Democratic image. But all of the fights were internecine and most of the wounds were self-inflicted.

The late Mayor Richard J. Daley was the embodiment the hard-nosed big-city mayor, taking care of his friends and allies, brooking no back talk from Republicans nor, more importantly, from those in his own party.

Over 21 years, the “real” Mayor Daley’s fights were usually with pesky reform Democrats – they’d be called “progressives” today – and with African-Americans Democrats, who correctly felt taken for granted by the Democratic establishment in every year that didn’t have an election.

The core of Mayor Daley’s image as a brawler, of course, starts with the 1968 Democratic National Convention and the civil war that helped elect Richard M. Nixon to the presidency.

One measure of the toxicity of that summer is found in the fact that national Democrats avoided Chicago for nearly 30 years, until 1996, when Daley’s son, Richard M., lured the party convention back to town.

The other relevant narrative involves the remarkable election of an African-American mayor in the city in 1983.

Democrat Harold Washington served only four years before his death but all his epic political battles were with fellow Democrats, some of whom did masquerade as Republicans when the spirit moved them.

Democrats on the City Council lined up against Washington and precipitated “Council Wars, an all-Democratic border war built along a racially-charged split in the Council.

In short order, Americans were looking at a “Newsweek” cover that labeled Chicago “Beirut on the Lake.” The fights were below the belt but again, it was strictly Democrat on Democrat.

Ald. Edward Vrdolyak, then the Cook County Democratic Party chairman, led the “Council Wars” with vocal assistance from Ald. Edward Burke and Parks Commissioner Edmund Kelly.

No Republicans in sight.

“Fast Eddie” Vrdolyak did become a Republican in 1987 and earned a Rose Garden ceremony from President George H.W. Bush. But he never won an election outside his 10th ward and in the absence of race cards to play, his political career dissolved into legal wrangles and obscurity.

And when Harold Washington successfully ran for re-election in 1987, besting former Democratic mayor Jane Byrne in a bitter primary, his GOP opponent got four percent of the vote.

Axelrod and Valerie Jarrett played important, reputation-building roles in that election and in the subsequent rise of Richie Daley.

Jarrett became Deputy Corporation Counsel under Washington and Deputy Chief of Staff to Daley after his 1989 victory. Emanuel was senior adviser and fundraiser in that same 1989 win, a three-way race in which the GOP candidate – Vrdolyak – got four percent of the vote.

Even in Obama’s 2004 U.S. Senate victory in Illinois, signaling his rise to national prominence, Republicans played a marginal role.

The enigmatic GOP incumbent, Peter Fitzgerald, did not seek re-election to a second term. The winner of the GOP primary stepped down in the wake of a sex scandal and Marylander Alan Keyes was handed the nomination, collecting just 27% of the vote.

Since the Massachusetts Senate defeat President Obama is said to be adopting a more combative, partisan attitude, prepared to start slugging out his agenda with Republican rivals.

History suggests that posture, while timely, may not prove a comfortable fit.