GQ: Kiss the Ring

Rahm Emmanuel played a key role in clinching the House for Democrats in 2006.

ByABC News
November 6, 2008, 6:39 PM

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The following report originally was published in GQ's January 2007 issue.

This is back in September, nearly six weeks before the massive landslide that would upend the U.S. Congress, and Rahm Emanuel is looking grim. He's sitting in a restaurant on Capitol Hill but needs to be back on the House floor soon for a late-night vote, and so he snaps at the server to speed up his steak. He looks like he needs it. Though he swims a mile most days, the campaign has taken a visible toll on him. He's lost nearly 15 pounds since early 2005, when he started his gig as the mastermind of the Democrats' effort to take back the House of Representatives. The bags under his eyes are heavier; his salt-and-pepper hair has gone heavy on the salt. Rahm has never been known for his cheerful demeanor, but tonight the gloom is especially thick as he talks about the campaign -- how the war in Iraq has been pushed from the front pages; how George Bush has once again used the anniversary of Sept. 11 to characterize the Democrats as weaklings; how his own war with Democratic National Committee chairman Howard Dean has been distracting; how the big donors from 2004 have "walked off the playing field;" and perhaps most frustrating, how some of his Democratic colleagues in the House are apparently resigned to permanent minority status, unable to do their part and raise the money the party desperately needs.

"I think," he finally says, with none of his usual swagger, "we have to go back to Social Security and Medicare, to turn out older voters."

Twenty-two months ago, amid the ruins of the 2004 Kerry campaign, Democrats installed Rahm -- nobody calls him Congressman Emanuel -- as the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. As we all now know, he did his job better than it has ever been done before. He raised more money than any previous chairman, he ruthlessly recruited handpicked candidates over the objections of local party bosses and liberal activists, and he bulldozed his colleagues over questions of strategy, regularly [expletive] off many House Democrats with his win-at-all-costs political advice. Despite the wins by traditionally liberal candidates in several districts, Rahm, with his insistence on playing to the middle, was undeniably the primary architect of the Democratic sweep.

As his steak arrives, Rahm is impressing upon me that nobody should underestimate the challenge Democrats face. Most of the competitive races are in red territory, he says, which is why he feels his critics on the left are silly and naive when they argue that the key to victory is simply for the party to turn out more of its base. He's getting agitated again, coming back to life. "There is no base!" he exclaims, and then digs into his steak.

"So how many seats do you think you're going to win?"

Rahm flashes the impatient stare that is a cross between contempt and pity, followed by a sigh and a long, uncomfortable silence. I brace myself for the tirade -- or the freeze-out. He's been known to meet reporters for lunch or dinner and, if they fail to impress, spend the meal ignoring them. And within the first 45 seconds or so of our first interview, he called me a [expletive] idiot -- though I soon learned I wasn't special in that regard. James Carville, Rahm's pal since their days together on the 1992 Clinton campaign, later told me not to sweat it: "Everybody is a [expletive] idiot to Rahm." Not even Bill Clinton is spared. When I ask the former president what is the bluntest thing Rahm has ever said to him, he tells me, "It's unprintable."

Instead, though, Rahm leans in close and gestures like he's trying to start a car that just won't turn over. He rotates his right hand, the one that's missing half its middle finger, and laments that the new Bush strategy has blunted the Democrats' momentum. Republicans are still in danger, but the wave he'd been hoping for is looking more and more far-fetched. He makes a sound like a faulty car ignition: "Kshhhh, kshhhh -- both sides are stuck," he says.

Instead of a national referendum on Bush and on Washington corruption, it looks like Rahm and his lieutenants will be forced into a race-by-race dogfight, which means they're going to have to get dirty. Or dirtier.

It so happens that earlier this very day, a story began to break about a Republican representative of a sprawling district in central Florida, and as we near the end of our meal, Rahm is anxious for an update. He asks his communications director, Bill Burton, who has joined us for dinner, to retrieve the story, and Burton pulls the article on the Web site of the St. Petersburg Times. "A Democratic congressional candidate is calling for an investigation of Rep. Mark Foley," Burton reads, "over an e-mail exchange he had with a teenage boy who had been a congressional page." For the first time all night, Rahm cracks a smile.

RAHM'S TASTE for blood goes way back, not just to the Clinton years but to his days as a Chicago political operative in the 1980s, when he worked on the campaigns of Paul Simon and Richard Daley. In 1988, in between those two stints, he served as the national campaign director at the DCCC. It was during that campaign that he wrote a manifesto for Campaigns & Elections magazine called "How to Beat a Republican." His advice? Once "you have succinctly spelled out your own program, you can start dredging up dirt on your opponent." To which he cheerily added, "The untainted Republican has not yet been invented."

But it was his fund-raising prowess for Daley that attracted attention in party circles, and in 1991 he was snapped up by the long-shot Clinton campaign, where he became famous for standing on his desk and screaming at donors who he believed could write bigger checks than they had offered.

For a man whose ability to raise cash is already the stuff of political legend, it's a special kind of torture that once he collects that money, he has to hand more than half of it over to guys who work in a room he's not even allowed to enter—but that's what the rules say he has to do. The last round of changes to campaign-finance law gave political parties the ability to spend more money—with the caveat that the additional funds had to be spent without any communication with the candidates. Since Rahm coordinates everything with his House campaigns, he can't also then spend tens of millions of dollars for ads and mail to help them. That has to be done by a staff of operatives who work for a hermetically sealed committee within a committee, called the IE because it makes independent expenditures on behalf of the DCCC's top House candidates. In short, Rahm can talk to the candidates as much he wants, but the amount of money he can give them is limited, while the IE can never talk to the candidates but can spend as much money as it wants on ads and mail and anything else that might help them win.

The IE is run by a 35-year-old Rahm loyalist named John Lapp. The bizarre setup means that Rahm, Washington's most famous control freak, has spent the past two years raising $122 million, only to fork over $67 million of it to Lapp. Even worse, Rahm, not known for keeping his opinions to himself, is barred by law from telling Lapp how to spend the money.

The arrangement "drove Rahm nuts," Lapp says. "Rahm always used to taunt me: 'All on your shoulders now. How does it feel to have all of the money, twice what the IE was last cycle, only to lose?'"

In Washington, political staffers tend to morph into their bosses over time. Some of the doppelgängers are legendary: Chuck Schumer's spokesman Phil Singer talks exactly like his boss; John Kerry's flack David Wade is the only man his age with Senator Kerry's haircut. And Lapp has become more and more like Rahm. When I arrive at the IE headquarters, twenty-five days out from election day, he is bouncing from task to task, adjusting TV ads, sculpting the content of direct mail, and erupting at Republican attacks ("Whalen," he screams at one point, referring to Republican candidate Mike Whalen of Iowa, "that fat piece of [expletive]. I want to [expletive] that bastard!").

Here at the IE, going negative is all they know. "We're hack-and-slash," Lapp says. One side of the IE office is dominated by a view of the Capitol, the other by a whiteboard listing every key House race in the country, divided according to competitiveness. The board will change today. In the two weeks since the Foley scandal exploded, the DCCC's army of pollsters has been surveying races everywhere, trolling for new targets of opportunity. On the whiteboard, these races are indicated with pink boxes drawn around them. "You are the only one who knows this information outside this building," Lapp warns me. He and Rahm are quietly planning a push into some of these districts.

But there's a limit to the money Lapp can dole out, and he and his deputy, Alixandria Wade, are forced to make some ruthless decisions today about how to spend what they have left. "There are twenty-five to thirty races right now we're engaged in," Lapp says. "I've got about $2 million in my pocket." With the stroke of Lapp's pen, some underfunded Democrats will see attack ads fall from the sky, ripping their opponents to shreds, while others will wait in desperation for cover fire that will never arrive.

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