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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

An Open Letter to the Democratic Community: Don’t Get Sucked into the Beltway Proxy Wars

This item by Ed Kilgore was first published on March 4, 2010.
This week’s big preoccupation in the chattering classes is about White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel. Is he in danger of being fired? Should he be? Is he engaged in a death struggle with David Axelrod and Robert Gibbs? Is he leaking his side of the story to the press? And on and on it goes.
Without question, internecine strife in the White House is a perpetual favorite of the beltway media. But the important thing for Democrats is to avoid the mistake of feeding this dangerous beast by making administration personalities proxies in fights over ideology, strategy or tactics, or scapegoats for disappointments and frustrations.
Unfortunately, such proxy wars are in great danger of getting out of control. Some progressives, with honest and sincere objections to various policies and rhetoric of the Obama administration, have seized on Emanuel as a Rasputin figure: he’s the key player in a “centrist” Clintonian clique that’s ruining the promise of Obama’s presidency; he’s an unprincipled tactician who sells out progressive policies; he bears responsibility for recruiting “conservatives” to run for office as Democrats when he chaired the DCCC; his friends are a bunch of corporate whores. Some “centrists” return the favor by creating a distorted caricature of Emanuel as the sole heroic realist in the White House fighting a lonely battle against impractical ideologues who’d prefer Republican victory to any accommodation of public opinion on their pet issues. Republicans themselves, of course, are gleefully piling on, agreeing with every available attack on every figure in the administration, while the political gossip columnists of the media exploit the opportunity to keep the daily debate as lurid and superficial as possible.
Democrats can’t stop the gossip columnists or the Republicans, both of whom have their own distasteful ulterior motives for promoting this divisive narrative, but they can firmly and emphatically refuse to participate in this profoundly destructive game – and they better start doing so right now. Barack Obama is the president, and there’s nothing in his background or present behavior to suggest that he’s the passive tool of his own staff or disengaged from the decisions that bear his name. In this White House as in any other, there is a place for strategists and for tacticians, for visionaries and for pragmatists, for people who are protecting the presidential “brand” and for people who don’t think much beyond this November. This White House, like every other, has made, and will continue to make, mistakes—some big, some little, some whose consequences nobody is in a position to calculate. At this exceptionally complicated moment in political history, there’s rarely any blindingly obvious course of action for the administration that only a fool or a knave would fail to undertake. We all have our opinions about what’s gone right or wrong on issues ranging from the minutiae of health care policy to the broad outlines of the Democratic Party’s message, and second-guessing is inherent to human nature. But converting our necessary disagreements over substantive issues into personality-based political soap opera represents an act of foolish self-indulgence that no successful political enterprise can endure for long.
At some point—at this point—it really is time to stop pointing fingers and focus on the political tasks just ahead. Encouraging “internecine war” narratives in the media is never a good idea, and it’s a particularly bad idea when it tends to make the president look weak and manipulated, and make his advisors look petty and divided. The president is the only one in a position to completely understand how his team functions, and how their strengths and weaknesses can best be managed.
So please, fellow Democrats, let’s not join our opponents in trashing Rahm or Ax or Robert or Valerie or any other satellite in the presidential orbit, and stop projecting our worries and hopes onto people who are invariably more complex than the cartoon caricatures that are imposed on them by observers with personal agendas. The late musician George Harrison once called gossip “the devil’s radio.” Democrats ought to avoid joining in political insider gossip of the type we are hearing right now like it’s the devil himself.

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