"People aren't happy with Washington! Look, we should be the party outside of Washington coming to goddamn kick ass out there." So says smack-talkin' Rep. Rahm Emanuel, the firebrand Illinois Congressman, former Clinton strategist and head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), a post he assumed last January. In his new role, it's Emanuel's responsibility, and his personal mission, to win back the House next November. And if history is any indicator, Emanuel will do anything, anything, to make this happen. But can he succeed?
The biggest challenge facing Democrats next year is the congressional redistricting pushed through by the Republican majority that, on the surface, will make it very difficult for the left to win an appreciable number of races. Out of 435 seats in the House, Democrats need just a net gain of 15 seats to regain control. Sound like a paltry sum? Sure. But the Republicans' craftiness in redrawing districts has reduced the number of seats in play to about 30, versus about 90 this same time before the 1994 election, according to the Cook Political Report, an independent campaign handicapper. In short, both Democratic and Republican districts were reinforced, but the all-important, highly coveted swing districts have all been erased. To say that winning 15 out of 30 seats is a fantasy would be an understatement. Emanuel certainly has his work cut out for him.
But there is hope. Emanuel has been getting lots of help from the right. The president's approval rating is at an abysmal 35%. A majority of Americans are dissatisfied with the Republican-controlled Congress. The GOP is weighed down by the quagmire in Iraq, the Katrina and Rita failures, a struggling economy racked with rising interest rates, massive debt and a possible bursting of the housing bubble, and mounting scandal. Bush looks and is tired and beaten. His political currency is depleted, and he's become a pariah to incumbents. The GOP is a party in trouble. And it only seems to be getting worse. History has shown that under such extraordinary circumstances, where the populace grows so unhappy with its leaders, the typical rules of thumb go out the window. That's when 30 seats in play could become 89 fairly quickly.
Emanuel is highly respected in Democratic circles for his tenacity and tireless work ethic. "I've known Rahm for more than 20 years and he has always been a fighter for Democratic values, even before he was first elected to Congress," said former Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe earlier in the year. "With Rahm now using his talents to help Democratic candidates across the country, I know we will take back the House in 2006."
To get there, Emanuel's main task is to raise funds and build a bigger war chest than the GOP. He was a cash cow for Bill Clinton back in the early 90's when he was a young, brash, relentless fundraiser. He still has his mojo, and has already raised a record-breaking $32-million. But if the Democrats are going to win next year they'll need more than money. They need viable, engaging candidates and a solid platform with a clear message that will resonate well with voters, especially moderate Republicans and Independents. Emanuel leans toward the center, and favors a range of benefits to help the middle class such as college tax breaks; retirement savings incentives; and the importing of lower-cost prescription drugs.
But the Democrats need much more than that. We need to lay out a creative exit strategy for the war. We need to develop a universal health plan that makes good political, social and economic sense. We need to improve our educational system. We need an intelligent alternative energy and fuel plan. We need a sound economic policy designed to drastically reduce our national debt, create new jobs and stave off inflation. And, in what was the cornerstone of the Bushies' main political appeal, we need to demonstrate to voters that they can entrust us with national security and the protection of our borders. We need our version of the Contract With America, Newt Gingrich's and the GOP's very potent weapon used back in '94 to take control of Congress.
The dark tunnel that has been the Democratic Party for years has started to show some light. The Democrats have a true warrior in Emanuel, whose take-no-prisoners political muscling should bode well for the party between now and the midterms. He's a streetfighter, not afraid to pummel the enemy. He is someone the left desperately needs swinging in its corner. In case you haven't noticed, we don't have many tough guys in our party. And he's already making serious progress. He's put 41 districts in play and he's been recruiting uniquely exciting new candidates including military vets, FBI agents, a pastor, a sheriff and former NFL quarterback Heath Shuler. And the more the GOP struggles, the quicker Emanuel will pounce.
"This is about winning campaigns. I come from the Vince Lombardi school: 'Winning is everything,'" he said.