Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Book Review: The Thumpin' By Naftali Bendavid

Spin cycle: How the Democrats are spinning their 2006 election win

Book reviews: The Thumpin': How Rahm Emanuel and the Democrats Learned to be Ruthless and Ended the Republican Revolution, by Naftali Bendavid

The Thumpin', in great hyperbolic style, takes what seems like a modest but nonetheless important Democratic mid-term Congressional victory from the autumn of 2006 and portrays it as a nation-shaking, transformative event. Frankly, the fact that a second term president faces a Congress held by the other party should astonish no one, nor should it be taken as the beginning or end of any sort of revolution. Regardless: this book is an entertaining and informative exposé on the 2006 American Congressional campaign.

Back in 2005, when Democratic Party hopes of retaking Congress were merely hypothetical, Chicago Tribune Reporter Naftali Bendavid was given unprecedented access to Illinois congressman and Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) Chair Rahm Emanuel and his work leading the 2006 campaign. Emanuel is a fortyish, hard-charging, gleefully vulgar, go-for-the-jugular self-promoter of the Kicking Ass school of politics. Yet he is far from a Democrat ideologue, or even much of a liberal for that matter. His philosophy can be summed up in one word: results. Politics, as Rahm Emanuel repeats many times in this book, is all about winning. End of story.

I found the underlying premise of this book, that Democrats did not care about winning until Rahm Emanuel got involved, a bit difficult to swallow. Certainly, when I've met Democrat political professionals they seemed highly focused on winning. Yet such is the cheerleading nature of this book that it does not strongly contest its protagonist's glaring self-promotion and revisionist history.

The book's narrative begins in 2005 as the wounds suffered by the Democrats in the November 2004 presidential election are being attended to. It goes on to the successful 2006 mid-term election campaign and the gain of 30 seats by the Democrats to capture a majority in the House of Representatives.

Emanuel claims credit for roughly 20 of those 30 seats, and the book details the process of targeting them (as well as some losing battles) for the 2006 election. A large portion of the book is taken up with the backroom politicking within the Democratic camp, especially the conflicts between the national campaign and the grassroots coalitions that constitute the Democratic Party of the United States. Often Emanuel went against perceived local wisdom, championing what he thought were more electable, right-of-centre candidates, over more liberal party loyalists with long-term local allegiances.

Included is the story of how he successfully championed the nomination of Tammy Duckworth, a young wounded Iraq war veteran, for the nomination in Illinois' Sixth Congressional District, a district where she had never even lived. She sought and won the nomination over Christine Cegelis, a 51-year-old single mother who had been the party's nominee two years previously. Cegelis had done well in the previous 2004 election, but not nearly well enough to take the seat from the incumbent Republican. Many local party activists thought Cegelis deserved another chance in 2006, but Rahm, representing the national campaign, supported Duckworth as a candidate with a much better chance of winning, creating real division and conflict among party activists. In the end, Duckworth beat Cegelis to win the nomination, but ended up losing the general election by a close 49 percent to 51 percent.

His only criterion in the 2006 campaign, said Rahm, was to win. "I'm cutthroat about this," he was publicly quoted as saying. "I don't give a crap where I pick up seats. I plan on winning. There is no emotional attachment."

In short, Rahm has emerged as the Democratic counterpart to the oft-maligned Karl Rove. And true to form, most of the conflict detailed in the book is not with the Republican party, but between the win-at-all-costs Emanuel faction of the Democratic Party and its liberal faction favouring a comprehensive 50-state strategy lead by former Presidential candidate Howard Dean and assorted progressive bloggers.

Even after the victory of 2006, that liberal faction strongly disputed Emanuel's contribution, saying that the watered-down inoffensive liberalism of some conservative Democrats - for whom Emanuel had been instrumental in winning nominations - had actually prevented the Democrats from picking up more seats. This faction of Democrats had wanted forthright anti-war populists, with more grassroots support, to lead the ticket. Undoubtedly, Emanuel's vulgarity (his book is filled with his famous unrestrained use of the f-word) and his open contempt for Democratic "purists" has worsened this existing divide. It doesn't do much for party unity, but it makes great reading.

In the end, The Thumpin' is filled with braggin', swearin', politickin', and a whole bunch of good old fashioned spinnin'. I recommend it for anyone who enjoys a taste of the aggressiveness and discipline that makes American politics so fascinatin'.