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Civics Thu Feb 26 2015

When the Room Is Small and You Stink

Thumbnail image for Civics by Ramsin CanonWhen he aped his mentor Bill Clinton in his inauguration speech, one could guess that Rahm Emanuel would be going to an old playbook that may not work for him in the long run.

Rahm Emanuel may have unwittingly learned a lesson from his days in the Clinton White House, specifically during his central role in the passage of NAFTA: If the big money is behind you, it does not really matter how harmful a policy is. The effects will be diluted enough that you can market whatever narrative you want and drown out the rabble. The NAFTA campaign was a well-financed sales job, meant to convince the country not only that something bad was good, but that plenty of "jus' folks" were all for it. The "selling" of free trade was among Emanuel's greatest accomplishments. This was followed up by taking on the all-mighty welfare lobby with support from the rich and powerful. He helped end welfare as we know it.

But beating labor and the poor in the 1990's with big business behind you might give you an over-inflated understanding of your political prowess.

In 2011, his ability to raise unlimited money at the snap of a finger--he famously raised over a quarter of a million dollars on the first day of his candidacy from only a few donors--cleared the field before him and he waltzed to an easy victory.

Like Bobby Hansen on the Bulls, Rahm Emanuel has won championship after championship; unlike Hansen, though, Emanuel seems to think that the credit should go to him, instead of the Michael Jordans and Scottie Pippens who sign his checks.

What he reaped for this sin of hubris was a whirlwind of deep and abiding loathing after a series of bad decisions--firing library staff, cutting mental health centers, shutting down schools in black and brown communities, raising regressive fees, installing nickel-and-diming red light and speed cameras, and provoking a teachers' strike.

It is notable that his campaign flacks, from David Axelrod on down, characterize these as "tough" decisions. These are not tough decisions; they are decisions that disproportionately harm poor and black and brown people. Ending mental health services for poor and working class people is a sad decision. Making the rich and powerful pay to keep those mental health services going is a tough decision.

Therein is Emanuel's problem, one he is not suited to solving alone: When the room is big and you stink, you can still make a good impression. But in a small room, everybody gets the stench.

When he helped pass NAFTA, or end welfare as we know it, the immediate impacts would be so dispersed, he could cash the checks from the big interests and run ads and editorials and unleash the lobbyists, and make appearances on the Sunday morning news shows and glad hand with D.C. media and sell it.

But Chicago isn't D.C., and his policies aren't dispersed across an entire continent. They're here, they're concentrated. There is no doubt that his decisions hurt a lot of people, and that stink is on him and him alone. No number of well-paid consultants or six figure checks can convince the crowded room that they're smelling daisies.

In 2012, I wrote this about the risks Emanuel and his fellow-travelers in the school privatization movement were taking by provoking a strike:

So the top-down, political-relationship heavy, marketing strategies of groups like Stand for Children lose their efficacy over time (and ironically, it's a strategy with its roots in the pro-NAFTA campaign partially engineered by Mayor Emanuel). Such strategies rely on the vast majority of people being unaffected in an immediate material way by the policy changes being proposed; the sophisticated marketing with inoffensive, abstract visions appeal to people in the way most advertising does. But the campaigns enjoy diminishing returns as more and more people feel the effects of a policy, particularly in localized conditions, because the effects are concentrated....

In other words, the proportion of people adversely effected by a given set of policies will be higher in localized conditions...It'd be like if a Red Bull bottling plant leaked thousands of gallons of concentrated Red Bull into the water supply of Eureka, Illinois, causing thousands of cases of acute kidney pain. Probably Red Bull sales would plummet in Eureka, no matter how many Flugtags they hold.

It's not the 90s anymore. A new politics is nascent. Guys like Axelrod seem to stubbornly misunderstand this reality. They must truly still believe that despite nearly two generations of growing income inequality, persistent institutional racism, runaway household debt, and the final evaporation of the meritocracy, winning center-left politics is still just about marketing and "optics," (whatever that means) and jokes about swearing. That one can still walk that tightrope of taking big money from big interests, and then just marketing themselves to people they have hurt.

The press and the campaigns would do well to consider how it is possible that an incumbent who's only admitted mistake is "tough-decision-making" could outspend his opponents by a factor of ten-plus and not come particularly close to a majority.

What have the people sniffed out, that you have not?

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Dan cullen / March 2, 2015 10:45 PM

Great article.....thanks! Go Chuy!

Marie / March 3, 2015 7:57 AM

thanks. This was an excellent post.

Barutan Seijin / March 3, 2015 9:37 AM

Astute. Thanks!

Sam / March 5, 2015 4:42 PM

Always astute.

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Parents Still Steaming, but About More Than Just Boilers

By Phil Huckelberry / 2 Comments

It's now been 11 days since the carbon monoxide leak which sent over 80 Prussing Elementary School students and staff to the hospital. While officials from Chicago Public Schools have partially answered some questions, and CPS CEO Forrest Claypool has informed that he will be visiting the school to field more questions on Nov. 16, many parents remain irate at the CPS response to date. More...


Substance, Not Style, the Source of Rahm's Woes

By Ramsin Canon / 2 Comments

It's not surprising that some of Mayor Emanuel's sympathizers and supporters are confusing people's substantive disputes with the mayor as the effect of poor marketing on his part. It's exactly this insular worldview that has gotten the mayor in hot... More...

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