Credit: Daniel X. O'Neil/Flickr

Rahm Emanuel takes a shot at the Netroots in his latest column for the Washington Post. I can’t really complain about that. Despite being a founding member of the movement, I just took my own shot at the Netroots. But I do find his reasoning curious.

First, he’s at pains to assure us that the Democratic Party has not “lurched” to the left.  Yet, he gives away his motive for saying this right at the top. He thinks the “presumption” that the party has moved “dramatically” to the left could cost them the election.

The most hyped theme of the 2020 election cycle is that the Democratic Party has lurched suddenly and dramatically to the left. Not only has the party not lurched, but also the presumption that Democrats are undergoing some sort of ideological transformation may undermine our opportunity to defeat President Trump next year.

So, he’s not interested in figuring out if the party has moved too far left. He’s only interested in beating back the impression that this has happened. I have to say, at least he’s honest about what he’ll try to accomplish in the piece. He’s not going to be discussing calls to quickly transition to a nationalized health program that eliminates all private insurance plans. He’s not going to look at which candidates have endorsed providing free health plans to undocumented people. He’s not going examine how the candidates’ positions on border issues are going over in critical swing districts. If you want that kind of information, you have to look elsewhere in the pages of the Washington Post:

“I think there has to be some moderation. I disagree with the candidates’ positions about providing health care to undocumented immigrants, when you have Americans who don’t have health care,” said Domingo Garcia, president of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), which held its convention here. “I think that was a snap decision by some of those candidates that wasn’t thought through.”

Cecilia Muñoz, a White House aide to President Barack Obama and a former policy advocate at the National Council of La Raza, a Latino advocacy group now known as UnidosUS, said decriminalizing unapproved border crossings would make it harder for Democrats to combat President Trump’s populist appeal.

“It allows him to make a claim that he is already making, which is Democrats are for an open border,” she said. “And it makes it harder to explain why that is not true.” She added that stopping family separations at the border doesn’t require making the crossings civil offenses.

Emanuel is going to ignore what the candidates are advocating and blame progressives for getting “louder and angrier over the past several years.” Yet, this is where things get really weird. What are the progressives angry about, in Emanuel’s view? Well, first it’s the Democratic Party losing most of the time even when the left gets more votes. And, second, it’s that even Clinton and Obama didn’t deliver on all their promises.

Even as Democrats have won more votes than Republicans in every presidential election except one since 1992, many on the left feel as though their demands have been deferred, denied or never addressed — not by the two Republican presidents elected since then, but worse, not by the two Democrats, either.

These seem like reasonable things to be frustrated about. So, what are the issues that are particularly troublesome?

Today’s activists are still angry about welfare reform, the bogus case of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, Guantanamo Bay and the failure of the public option during debate over the Affordable Care Act, just to name a few.

I suppose Emanuel probably wants to defend welfare reform, but is he not angry about the bogus WMD case used to rally support for the Iraq War? Even Trump expresses anger about this.

Is Emanuel not frustrated that his former boss, Barack Obama, failed in his effort to close Guantanamo Bay? As Obama’s first chief of staff, Rahm had to get this done as a key part of his job, and he failed.

As for the public option, adding one to the Affordable Care Act is now the key health care initiative of Joe Biden’s campaign. Many progressives see that as inadequate today, but their prior support for Biden’s present position is hardly evidence of their irrational anger.

Rahm’s next step is to take a shot at Elizabeth Warren and the Netroots.

As someone who’s been doing this for a while, let me assure you that some of the people supporting Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s campaign today are cut from the same cloth as those who were heartbroken when Bill Clinton dispatched Jerry Brown during the 1992 primaries. They’re making many of the same arguments Ralph Nader made when he ran against Al Gore in 2000. Some are veterans of the Netroots, a group that emerged during the George W. Bush years.

This just looks like bitterness to me. Rahm is still harboring resentments against Jerry Brown supporters? Brown just completed two very successful terms as governor of our nation’s largest state. He was widely-praised both for achieving many progressive goals and for knowing when to draw the line on progressive demands. He’s now a radical non-team player like Ralph Nader? Brown’s 1992 supporters were just proto-Naderites? And Elizabeth Warren is a Naderite, too?

As for the Netroots, he doesn’t even deign to explain what is wrong with them.  He just wants you to know they that aren’t anything new or novel. They’re the same McGovernites that cost the Democrats all but one election between 1968 and 1992.

In fact, it was progressives who controlled the Democratic Party’s agenda for the quarter-century before Clinton’s victory in 1992. That’s one of the reasons we lost every presidential election held between 1968 and 1988 except the post-Watergate win by Jimmy Carter. History has proved there aren’t enough voters on the far left, on their own, to elect and reelect a president or maintain a majority in Congress.

He only mentions this history to assure us that the progressives don’t have that kind of negative influence today and the only danger is that people will presume that they do.

Proving that this piece is a complete mess, Rahm then goes on to discuss other threats. Example one is the progressives’ power to purge moderates.

What remains to be seen is whether today’s far left is more interested in defeating Trump than it is in drumming moderates out of the Democratic Party.

Example two is the progressives’ tactics and rhetoric:

That then points to the third myth: namely that, to win, Democrats need to mirror Trump’s abrasive political style. When Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) riles up his supporters by boasting that “there is no middle ground,” he’s promising to be a liberal answer to Trump — to fight fire with fire as Trump’s liberal mini-me. That’s the wrong approach.

I don’t know how you set out to explain that the party has not moved too far to the left and that progressives pose no threat and then spend much of your time discussing their power and potential to do damage.

In the end, Rahm really only succeeds in pointing out that moderate Democrats still make up a huge part of the party’s base of support. This should be obvious by looking at Joe Biden’s persistent, if dwindling, lead in the polls. But what Rahm doesn’t address is the main dispute.

It’s really never been an argument over the merits of a public option versus Medicare-for-All or about whether or not ICE and the border patrol deserve to be broken up and scattered to the winds, as JFK famously threatened to do to the CIA. Moderate Democrats generally agree with the progressives on these issues in the abstract. What they don’t want to see is the Democrats squander the advantages in a senseless manner.

The party won the 2018 midterms primarily by hammering Trump on health care. Why would they flip that around by endorsing taking everyone’s private health insurance away? Donald Trump has presided over crimes against humanity at the border that have shocked the conscience of the country and the world. Why would the Democrats adopt hugely unpopular border and immigration positions that result in swing voters preferring crimes against humanity to their platform?

Emanuel seems to get close to everything wrong in this piece. It’s not necessarily the party members who have shifted far to the left. As of now, they’re showing a strong preference for an Obama Democrat. It’s the presidential field of candidates who have lurched to the left by adopting enormously unpopular positions that have the potential to turn some of Trump’s biggest vulnerabilities into areas of strength. And if these candidates are doing this because of pressure from progressives, then that means the progressives have disproportionate influence, which is the exact opposite of what Rahm is saying. Finally, because Rahm refuses to acknowledge the real problem progressives are posing, he winds up attacking them for all the things they’ve been right about, like opposing the Iraq War, wanting to close Guantanamo, and demanding a public option for Obamacare.

I used to support Rahm Emanuel against some of the attacks he received from the Netroots but he lost me for good with his cover-up of the police killing of Laquan McDonald. I called for him to resign as mayor of Chicago in December 2015. Since that time, I have not considered him to have the moral credibility to offer his opinion on anything, and it doesn’t help that he can’t make a coherent argument even on things I might be at least half-inclined to agree with.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly. See all his writing at