What Does Rahm Want?

Before he was mentioned as a possible Senate successor to Barack Obama, before he helped lead the Democrats back to power in the House, before he was even elected to his first term as the congressman from the North Side of Chicago, Rahm Emanuel was telling friends that he had one goal in life: to become the first Jewish speaker of the House.

But the No. 4 man in the House Democratic leadership has become a victim of his own success. As chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, Emanuel helped lead the Democrats back to the majority in 2006. That victory put the speaker’s gavel in the hands of Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), and she’s not likely to give it up any time soon.

Emanuel — who is both ambitious and impatient — may not be able to wait. In early June, conservative columnist Robert Novak wrote that Pelosi was “reported to be privately talking” about Emanuel as a possible successor for Barack Obama if Illinois’ junior senator is elected president.

Emanuel and Pelosi flatly denied the rumor, but it has sparked a new round in one of Washington’s favorite parlor games: What does Rahm want now?

The now part is easy to answer, Emanuel says.

Although he has what insiders call a “solid relationship” with Democratic Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who would name Obama’s replacement if it comes to that, Emanuel says Obama’s job isn’t on his radar screen.

“I’m not interested in the seat,” Emanuel said several weeks ago. “I enjoy my job in the House, and I am not interested in going to the Senate.”

But if Obama’s seat becomes available and Emanuel doesn’t jump, it will serve only to raise the questions all over again: What does Rahm really want, and what is his timetable for getting there?

Emanuel won’t say, and other Democrats are not eager to make pronouncements about the political outlook of their sometimes volatile colleague — at least not publicly.

But the private consensus among Democratic members, even among those who count themselves as critics, is that Emanuel is on the path to the speaker’s chair. Emanuel will have to do some fence-mending to get there, especially with some black and Hispanic Democrats he has offended over the years. But that obstacle is not seen as insurmountable for someone who, as chairman of the DCCC, gets the lion’s share of the credit for ending the GOP’s control of the House after 12 years.

“The whole question is one of time,” said one Democrat close to the current leadership team, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “Does Rahm want to put in the time to be speaker? Will he hang in there long enough? He is young enough to wait, but will he? His age [48] is a dual-edged thing. It gives him time to wait, but does he want to put in six or eight or even 10 years or more? I don’t know.”

Pelosi is 68. Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland is 69. Majority Whip James Clyburn of South Carolina turns 68 next week. If Pelosi serves another four to six years as speaker — the traditional tenure for the hugely demanding job — the two men next in line will be in their 70s by the time she steps down.

A Democratic insider close to Hoyer said the Maryland Democrat “is very happy to be majority leader, and he’s not thinking about what happens down the road.” But some rank-and-file Democrats are convinced that Hoyer desperately wants to retire from the House with the title of “Mr. Speaker.”

Clyburn hasn’t aspired to be speaker, but House Democrats might find it hard to resist giving him the job, assuming that it’s theirs to give when Pelosi steps down. “I think Jim could be speaker if he wanted to,” said one Pelosi confidant, who noted that it would happen only if Hoyer were out of the equation. “How could the [Democrati] Caucus pass up making him the first black speaker?”

But another senior Democrat suggested that “the next speaker will not come from the ranks” of Hoyer and Clyburn. As the No. 4 man in the Democratic leadership, Emanuel would be next in line.

If he decided to run, he could point to a long list of qualifications and attributes that would suit him well for the job. His critics — or challengers — could cite some significant negatives, as well.

Emanuel is seen by lawmakers in both parties as a first-rate political strategist — just ask former Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.). Emanuel cut his teeth during six years of tough fighting with the Clinton administration, not exactly a place for the weak or soft. Pelosi and Emanuel have forged surprisingly strong ties, according to House insiders; she leans heavily on him for advice, although she won’t always follow it.

Emanuel possesses strong communication skills, in particular, the ability to have a message and stay on it. He has also gone out of the way to court the press. He has many political reporters and editors around Washington on speed dial, and he holds frequent off-the-record get-togethers with journalists in his Capitol hideaway.

Emanuel’s reputation as a hard worker is solid, as described in Naftali Bendavid’s 2007 book “The Thumpin’: How Rahm Emanuel and the Democrats Learned to Be Ruthless and Ended the Republican Revolution.”

Members and leadership aides note that there is “no way to outwork Rahm” or his highly respected staff.
His political alliances are many and widely varied, and unlike some other lawmakers’, they extend far beyond the Beltway. Along with former Clinton-era veterans like James Carville and Paul Begala, Emanuel is close to David Axelrod, Obama’s top political strategist.

The Axelrod-Emanuel ties, as well as the relationship between Obama and Emanuel, has led some Democratic insiders to wonder whether Emanuel could be offered a senior executive branch post if Obama finds himself in the Oval Office.

A moderate with a safe seat, Emanuel can meld policy and politics. He’s also a prolific fundraiser — aside from Pelosi, Emanuel raises more money than any other House Democrat — and he is popular with junior members, many of whom owe their seats to the campaign Emanuel ran in 2006.

The negatives: Emanuel has an abrasive personality that is sometimes difficult for even friends to tolerate. He also has the ability to make enemies.

Emanuel inspires emotional reactions in those he comes in contact with on a regular basis, and his enemies may loathe him more than his friends like him. He’s not beloved within the Congressional Black Caucus or the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. As DCCC chairman, Emanuel made some tough calls on where to put valuable committee resources, turning down some black and Hispanic lawmakers who wanted help. Emanuel ended up being right, but it still left some bruised feelings.

Emanuel also considered mounting a challenge to Clyburn for the House whip job, but backed down after Pelosi intervened.

Another strike: Emanuel has a young family — three children under the age of 12 — and the speaker’s job may not be well suited for someone trying to raise a family.

But overall, the 110th Congress has only strengthened Emanuel’s position as a looming heir apparent to the House Democratic Caucus — if he has the patience to wait.

“Rahm is playing it straight,” said a top Democratic lobbyist with strong ties to the party leadership. “He’s on the path. The only question is, will he stay?”

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