— -- 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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Late in the morning, Lapp and Wade join a conference call with a trio of political consultants—adman, pollster, mail guy—to get advice about resources and tactics for several races. A new poll from Ohio's Second District is promising. The Democrat, Victoria Wulsin, is ahead of Jean Schmidt, an incumbent Republican despised by Democrats ever since she implied Congressman Jack Murtha, a decorated Marine combat veteran, was a coward. The Schmidt race is a perfect example of the problem Democrats face in many districts this year. Ohio Two is an overwhelmingly Republican district, and it seems crazy that it might be in play. But Ohio Republicans are mired in scandal, voters in the district have turned against the war, and as one of the consultants argues, Schmidt is "personally obnoxious."
The Schmidt race also proves Rahm's point that "there is no base." Wulsin has locked up 91 percent of the Democrats in the district and is winning independents by a remarkable 3-to-2 margin, yet she still hasn't cracked 50 percent. The only voters left to go after are Republicans. "It would make sense to hit her back on taxes with an eye toward conservative rural voters," the pollster argues. Another consultant thinks it's not winnable: "This is a district that voted for Bush by twenty-eight points."
Lapp, whose tendency is to strike hard in red districts, is pessimistic. As the consultants argue over tactics, he hits the mute button. "We're dealing with 2 million bucks," he says. "Throwing away $150,000 on this—I don't know."
After a series of similar discussions about other races, Lapp and Wade finally sit down and spend their money. Some decisions are easy. "Ohio?" asks Wade. "We're not doing that," says Lapp. (Schmidt will go on to win 51–49.) Others are heartbreaking. "North Carolina Eight is for suckers," Wade says about one race that doesn't get funded. (The Democrat will lose by just 449 votes.) Still, others are prescient. "We're doing all of these," Lapp says, pointing to three tight races, including Connecticut's Second District. (The Democrat there will win by ninety-one votes, the closest race in the country.)
Lapp has the luxury of making these decisions without ever talking to neurotic candidates or dealing with the daily grind of the individual races. He is the equivalent of an air-force general calling in strikes at 30,000 feet while sitting at a desk thousands of miles away. The guys in the trenches aren't even allowed to call him. But James Carville can weigh in, and does, constantly (so often that IE staffers joke about changing their phone numbers). Carville is part of Rahm's strategic brain trust, and like many of Rahm's friends from the Clinton era, he has a personal stake in Rahm's success. They were in the White House together in 1994 when Republicans took over Congress, and it's clear that for them this campaign is about revenge.
Today, Carville is lecturing Lapp about how toxic the post-Foley environment has turned, insisting that the Democrats must dramatically expand their playing field. This is the best political environment for Democrats since 1974, Carville screams into Lapp's ear. Whatever it takes, the party must beg, borrow, or steal an additional $5 million to $10 million to fund the effort. If Carville had seen the decisions Lapp was just forced to make, he would have blown a gasket.
Lapp's only response to Carville is, "How well do you know Howard Dean? Why don't you call him up?"
AS THE CHAIRMAN of the Democratic National Committee, Howard Dean is the one man who could provide the DCCC with a large influx of cash. So Carville followed Lapp's advice and reached out to him through a donor pal who knows Dean. "This [expletive] has got to stop," Carville told the friend. "We need to go see Dean. He's got one thing we need—borrowing power." Word came back the next day that Dean wouldn't meet with them. (Later, asked about the incident, a top aide to Dean tells me the chairman has no idea what Carville is talking about.)
The "[expletive]" Carville was referring to was the long-running feud between Rahm and Dean, which boiled down to Rahm's wanting Dean to give him more money—a lot more—and Dean's refusing to do it. Normally, the chairman of the DNC is installed by party leaders, but after the Democrats' 2004 debacle, there were no party leaders, and Dean won the chairmanship by winning over the anonymous state-party chairs and much neglected members of the DNC, the folks who actually vote on the matter. The state parties became his base of support, and Dean promised them two things: more money and more power.
It drove Rahm and Carville nuts. "The thing that stuns me," Carville says, "is that this is supposed to be a rigged deal—chairman of the party! The congressional leadership, the fund-raisers, people like that are supposed to decide. You [the state-party chairs and DNC members] are supposed to get a call and are told who to vote for! You're not supposed to really vote on this [expletive]!"
Dean kept his promise and began shoveling money to the state parties—what he described as the "fifty-state strategy"—without regard to whether individual states had competitive races in 2006. The strategy enraged Rahm, and in May he and Senator Chuck Schumer, who ran the Senate campaigns, met with Dean at the DNC to try once again to squeeze cash out of him. The conversation descended into a bitter argument about how Dean was [expletive] away money, and Rahm, late for a vote in the House, reportedly stormed out of the room in a cloud of profanities.
Rahm had only one more option for pressuring Dean: start leaking to the press. A senior aide to Rahm says Rahm believed that if there were enough newspaper accounts filled with details about how Dean's stinginess was going to cost Democrats the House, Dean would have to cave. But the stories came and went, and Dean held firm. "What I think Rahm didn't recognize," Dean's aide says, "was that's exactly the wrong way to move Dean." In the end, Rahm—or rather his staff, because at this point he refused to talk to Dean—had to go crawling back to the DNC chairman and accept Dean's offer of $2.4 million. Even worse, Dean refused to give the money directly to Rahm. "Governor Dean had concerns that Rahm was going to spend it all on TV," Dean's aide says. Instead, it would be funneled through the state parties.
With a month left in the campaign, I ask one of Rahm's top aides about Dean, and she explodes. "He's so frustrating. I just don't like him, anyway. I haven't liked him from the beginning. It's totally bizarre dealing with him.
She goes on, "It's not just that we only got $2.4 million, but we're also supposed to not say mean things about Howard Dean. And Rahm's supposed to act like everything's wonderful." After the showdown in May, the two men didn't speak until election night.
The division was not only tactical but also ideological. Since 2004 the Democratic party has divided into two warring camps, the Deaniacs and the Clintonites. On one side are Dean, the state parties, various liberal bloggers, and antiwar activists. They see the Clinton years as a wasted era in which party institutions withered and a White House obsessively focused on winning the next news cycle sold out the traditional values of the Democratic Party and ultimately delivered Congress to the Republicans. On the other side are Rahm and the Clintonites, who strongly believe that the only future for the party is to hew to the ideological middle and are bewildered that the Clinton legacy, successful both in terms of politics (two presidential wins) and results (peace and prosperity), is being second-guessed by their own side.
Last summer Rahm authored a book with Bruce Reed, Clinton's top domestic-policy adviser and now president of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council—the source of much evil, according to Deaniacs—that laid out an agenda for Democrats that includes free trade, small steps to increase the number of people with health insurance, and some worthy political-process reforms. When I ask Rahm about the criticism that the book's ideas are too incremental, too stuck in the '90s version of Clintonism, he angrily interrupts, "Oh, you mean the period in time when there was the first Democrat president to get reelected since Franklin Delano Roosevelt? That period of time?"
As this campaign took shape, it became clear that the election was going to be a referendum not just on Bush but also on this schism among the Democrats. Rahm installed his three closest friends from the Clinton era—Carville, political adviser Paul Begala, and pollster Stan Greenberg—as a strategic brain trust, and throughout the campaign he leaned heavily on Clinton for help. "We spoke often, usually once or twice a week," Bill Clinton told me via e-mail. "Early on, Rahm asked me to do a number of fund-raising and campaign appearances. As the campaign developed, he asked me to do more. I know I did every event he requested." Rahm also dispatched his former boss to trouble spots and enlisted him to recruit reluctant candidates, like North Carolina's Heath Shuler. And Rahm says Clinton often knew the individual districts better than he did. "When we wanted him to go to Cincinnati," Rahm tells me, "he calls and says, 'Are you sure you want me in Cincinnati, given the white ethnic community?' Don't [expletive] with that guy. He knows his numbers. He knows where he plays and where he doesn't play."
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When I ask whether the wounds from '94 have something to do with Clinton's enthusiasm to help, Rahm once again gives me the [expletive]-idiot look. "I think that had something to do with his interest and energy," he says sarcastically, and then he adds, "There is no doubt. This is payback time."
IT'S LATE OCTOBER, and Rahm is sitting under a white umbrella at the Four Seasons in Miami, eating papaya. Across the table is David Quint, a local real estate baron and one of the party's more vigorous recent donors. "I'll get you your checks today," Quint says, rising from the table. Rahm thanks him, walks over to where I'm sitting on the patio, shakes my hand without saying a word, and heads for the lobby. Halfway there, he suddenly turns around. "How are you?" he asks.
He has a lot on his mind. A Washington Post photographer is waiting to shoot him amid some palm trees. Bloomberg TV is set up in a cabana by the pool, waiting to do an interview. And e-mails and phone calls are pouring in about crises in campaigns across the country. Rahm now spends all his time doing two things: meeting with rich people and talking on the phone. He carries a Razr and a BlackBerry, passing them back and forth with his deputy finance director Greg Mecher. "Okay, do the voice-mail thing here," he barks, tossing Mecher the Razr and retrieving the BlackBerry. Endlessly checking messages appears to be Mecher's only job.
Rahm has a love-hate relationship with the press. He knows the payoff that comes from cooperating, but he finds the experience of being watched painful. "Are we done?" he asks the Post photographer, who hasn't even started. Moments later he settles onto a stool and waits for the Bloomberg interview to start. He is now being watched by a reporter, a photographer, the Bloomberg TV crew, and assorted tourists lying by the pool. He seems to be genuinely suffering. "I'm not doing Bloomberg," he finally says. "[Expletive] you guys." Then he softens it into a joke and shouts at the producer, "If I have a drop of sweat, it's your fault! How much longer are we sitting here?"
After the interview, it's up to his suite, where he turns on CNN and parks himself in a straight-backed chair near the window. Mecher positions himself at a desk nearby, prepared for the BlackBerry/Razr handoffs. A breaking report shows more grim news from Iraq as Rahm dials into a conference call for Northeast congressmen. His phone manners are hilariously bad ("Hey, [expletive], call me back" is how he leaves messages for Lapp), but in his defense he speaks to everyone—reporters, candidates, Nancy Pelosi, even his own mother—the same way. "Can I say one thing?" he impatiently yells at the conference-call operator. "I don't want my colleagues to have to press buttons if they want to talk to me. Just open it up. Let's go."
The scale of the post-Foley Republican retreat has become clear, and Rahm runs through the expanded list of races that are now there for the taking: ten that he deems "good," most of them involving Republicans who have been soiled by scandal; seven that he says are "fifty-fifty"; and thirteen more that are "competitive." Rahm explains that both Diane Farrell, the challenger to Republican Chris Shays in Connecticut, and Ron Klein, the challenger to Clay Shaw here in Florida, have moved "five points on Iraq." "The most motivated voters are Iraq voters," he tells his fellow congressmen. "You get a twofer: One is the issue of Iraq, and two is that a lot of their guys have made statements supporting Bush. So you also get the rubber stamp. I want to finish this campaign zeroed in on Iraq. They say terrorism, we say Iraq. They say stay the course, we say change."
Suddenly, in the middle of the conference call, he's anxious to get on the phone. "I gotta deal with a big problem," he says to the congressmen on the line. He's learned that Republicans are running a TV ad against his candidate Mike Arcuri, a district attorney in upstate New York, claiming that Arcuri billed taxpayers for a call to a phone-sex hotline. In truth, it was an aide to Arcuri who made the call, and he had meant to dial the state's Division of Criminal Justice Services, whose phone number happens to be the same as the phone-sex line's but with a different area code. The $1.25 call showed up on Arcuri's bill, which was discovered by GOP research and handed over to Republican admakers.
Rahm is now on the phone screaming at his political director, Sean Sweeney, ordering him to immediately send a letter to every TV station in the district demanding the ad be pulled. "I want the lawyers on the phone before the letter's out! What we always do is wait for the letter, and it goes through seven edits. I've now known for an hour! Is the letter at the station?" It's Friday morning. If they don't get the ad pulled today, it will air through the weekend, perhaps costing their candidate the race. Conversely, if they get it pulled, they could turn it into a devastating story about Republican overreach. Rahm wants a conference call with the local press so the aide who dialed the wrong number can explain the facts. Once that's done, they have to go after Arcuri's opponent. "Then we have to eviscerate him!" he yells. "Okay?"
The calls go on like this forever. "Al Quinlan, please," Rahm says, ringing up one of his pollsters, "and please don't leave me on hold for an hour!" He asks Quinlan about New York, where Tom Reynolds has become vulnerable in the wake of the Foley scandal. This race is about more than just picking up a seat, though. Reynolds is the head of the National Republican Congressional Committee, the equivalent of the DCCC, so just pinning him down in a tough race has strategic value. In previous cycles, there was an understanding that the heads of the two campaigns wouldn't go after each other, but Rahm doesn't play by those rules. "What's Reynolds's negatives?" he asks. "What's his job approval? If you were going to hit him with a hammer, which is what we're about to do today, what would you hit him with?" (Despite Rahm's efforts, Reynolds will hang on to win his race.)
He hangs up the phone, exhales through gritted teeth, and exclaims, "Man, my stomach is [expletive] killing me." Every new call or BlackBerry message brings a new crisis or opportunity. A poll in a conservative Kansas district shows that Republican Jim Ryun is vulnerable. Should they spend money there? A Kentucky candidate calls and begs Rahm's assistant for help. No way—the guy's worth $12 million.
All decisions come back to money. We go down the street for lunch at a chic downtown restaurant. In between calls, Rahm explains why his friends like Carville and Begala have been telling reporters that the Democrats are blowing it. "They don't think there's enough money," he says. "I only have a million-two left." Above our heads, a plasma TV plays an attack ad Lapp created about Florida representative Clay Shaw. "I'm happy where we are, but it's hard to make these choices," Rahm goes on. "We could use 5 to 7 million more."
AT THE END of the lunch, before Rahm hops into a black Escalade and is driven to Palm Beach to see more rich guys, he gets on the phone with Carville and Greenberg to go over some new polling. In public Greenberg has been giddy about the Democrats' prospects. Two days ago, he wrote on his firm's Web site, "The polls all show a dramatic difference in engagement and demoralization.… This electorate will become more Democratic. The wave we are looking at will grow, not recede." But that's not the message he's delivering to Rahm, who paces back and forth on a street corner, throwing his arm in the air and yelling at Greenberg, "I don't know what the [expletive] that means!" Apparently, Greenberg has changed his mind. "He said something on the phone that was strange," Rahm explains once we're inside the car. He's sounding slightly panicked. "He said that our voters are dropping as fast as their voters in interest, which I thought was surprising. He's all over the papers saying this is a phenomenal [Republican] collapse, and then all of a sudden he was like…" His voice trails on. "I don't hear his caution in the [expletive] newspapers!" Greenberg's new theory is that all the negative ads are turning off Democrats and that Rahm needs to get his candidates to soften their message, to "close positive."
But that's not Rahm's strategy. "I told him, 'Now you're beginning to sound like someone who ran the Kerry campaign,' " he says to me, and then he calls Greenberg back. "That was pretty dark, what you said," Rahm complains to him. "But there is no recommendation to the IE to go positive, by anybody. Not that I have control of it, but I'm saying I don't hear a single thing convincing me to take our foot off their necks."
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Slowly, though, Greenberg's data seeps in, and Rahm reluctantly begins dialing the admakers and candidates, telling them one at a time, "I'm passing it on: We want to start thinking about finishing positive."
The debate about going positive will last through the final days of the campaign, with Carville and Greenberg arguing for it and Lapp arguing against it. In fact, when all is said and done, Lapp will basically refuse to follow those orders. "I decided not to do it," he'll later tell me. "The candidates rely on us to provide air cover for them."
Being positive is just not in Rahm's nature, either. Right up until the end of the campaign, he refused to make predictions or celebrate prematurely. When Adam Nagourney, the chief political correspondent for The New York Times, calls Rahm in late October to interview him for a story about how Democrats are giddy about their prospects, Rahm delivers a tongue-lashing unlike anything I've ever heard from a United States congressman. "That's not something I care about!" he screams into his Razr. "That's Washington gobbledygook. That's Washington talking to Washington. Do you know one voter in America who votes because Washington has a conversation with itself? Do you know one?" There is a pause. "Your mother! That's [expletive] it, Adam! Nobody gives a [expletive] what Washington has to say, including me. Okay?"
ON ELECTION NIGHT, Rahm sits at a small conference table in his office at the DCCC. A bank of four televisions is propped in front of him. An iPod on his desk plays Shawn Colvin. As returns come in on the Internet, young staffers race by, updating the floor-to-ceiling whiteboard outside Rahm's door. He looks fried. He recently said, "I wake up every night at three in the morning, and all I do is go over the races."
Naturally, Rahm is on the phone. His assistant Katie rushes in with a piece of paper and announces, "I've got the stuff out of Chicago." He reviews the numbers, which are from the Tammy Duckworth race, one of the DCCC's most heavily funded races. Things don't look good. Duckworth, an Iraq-war veteran who lost both her legs to a rocket-propelled grenade and is running in a deep red district, is a personal favorite of Rahm's, and her loss tonight will temper the joyous mood. ("I thought he was going to cry when Tammy Duckworth lost," Bill Clinton later tells me).
Every few minutes, he gets up from his chair, walks to the door, and yells for Katie, an apparently much abused young aide. "Ka-tie! Could somebody hit update on Indiana?" "Ka-tie! Can somebody pull up Yarmuth's numbers?" "Ka-tie! I need Mark Gersh!"
Rahm's attention floats from CNN to his BlackBerry to results his staffers plunk down on his desk. "How's turnout?" he says into the receiver. "For us or for everybody? So it's not good?" But of course, it is good. Things looked so good at the end that in the last two weeks of the campaign, Rahm took Carville's advice and drew an $11.5 million loan to finance a final push into thirteen races that became competitive in the homestretch. In order to surprise the Republicans, the loan was kept secret. Tonight, Democrats will win eight of those thirteen races.
I ask if it matters how big or small the margin of victory is, and Rahm gives me the [expletive]-idiot look one last time. "Remember this," he says, "whether it's fifteen, sixteen, twenty, eighteen, nineteen, or twenty-one"—he speaks slowly and drops to a whisper, articulating every syllable—"the gavel is the same size. You don't get a bigger gavel."
In the end, the number is twenty-nine, with eight additional races where recounts will drag on. More remarkably, Rahm does not lose a single Democratic incumbent—the first time that has happened since 1922. The exit polls suggest a vindication of sorts for Rahm's devotion to Clintonism. The election was a revolt of the middle against Bush's extremism. Then again, it was disgust with Iraq, the issue most dear to the left—and the one that Rahm's sparring partner Howard Dean rode to power—that fueled the political earthquake.
Flush with victory after the election, Rahm's allies, led by Carville, try to mount a coup at the DNC by publicly attacking Dean and suggesting he be replaced by Harold Ford, a Tennessee moderate who just lost a Senate race. "You can't go into 2008 having a party chairman that is completely disconnected from the congressional leadership and the campaign committees," Carville tells me, further pounding the wedge that divides the Deaniacs and the Clintonites. When I ask if Rahm agrees, Carville says, "It's not any secret that Rahm has expressed disdain for Dean and not very secret that Rahm and I are close," says Carville. "It doesn't take a lot of dot-connecting here." What about the Clintons, who, given Hillary's presidential ambitions, have more cause for concern about who runs the DNC in 2008? "Let's just say nobody has called me telling me this is a bad idea. Sometimes silence is eloquence." Not only did Carville's coup fail but it arguably strengthened Dean, who, speaking before his state-party allies, mocked the attempt as a desperate attack from the "old Democratic Party." Cutting his losses, Rahm quickly leaked word to the press that he and Dean had negotiated a truce.
Oddly enough, for Rahm, his election-night victory will be followed by another check on his ambitions. In the wake of success, many assumed Rahm would run for majority whip, the third-ranking position in the new House. But Pelosi will douse those flames, warning Rahm not to challenge James Clyburn, a black congressman who is in line for the position. Rahm's consolation prize will be caucus chairman, the number four job. His aides say he will turn the backwater position into a more important perch, from which he will build a base of power for himself and other young members, many of whom he just elected, who are frustrated with the older generation of House Democrats. "The Democratic caucus under Rahm," says Lapp, "will be like a DCCC on the Hill."
As the returns come in, I ask Rahm what he will say tonight when it's his turn to address the cameras. "I'm working on it right now," he says, pointing to some papers. He offers to read it to me. Then a strange thing happens. Rahm Emanuel turns solemn and self-conscious. He sits up in his chair and holds the pages of his text a few inches from the table. The remarks are election-night pabulum, but he reads them slowly, earnestly, as if for the first time he realizes that the payoff from all the attack ads and fund-raising calls and [expletive]-you's is that the rule of one party is ending and that his party, the one that was kicked out of power because his crowd couldn't shoot straight in 1994, will now be in charge.
"It's been said," he starts haltingly, "that Washington's often the last place in America to get the news. So let me tell you tonight, the news has arrived. From every corner of our country, the American people have sent a resounding, unmistakable message of change. We accept your votes, not as a victory for our party but as an opportunity for our country. And we humbly accept your challenge." It is almost a poignant moment, a flash of the sensitive guy that Rahm's aides have been telling me lurks beneath the Chicago tough-guy exterior.
But then it is gone in a flash, and with it the peacemaking pretensions. A little later, when CNN projects that Democrats will take back the House, Rahm climbs onto a desk and addresses his staff. "The Republicans," he yells, "can go [expletive] themselves!"