When Barack Obama selected Rahm Emanuel as his chief of staff, critics booed Obama’s apparent move towards the kind of bare-knuckle partisan politics for which Emanuel is known. Others theorized that Emanuel would actually serve more to keep hyperpartisan Democrats in line, running interference for Obama as he pursued a centrist policy in Congress. With the Rod Blagojevich scandal dogging Emanuel at the moment, Nancy Pelosi seems to have sensed weakness in Emanuel’s position, and she has pushed hard at Team Obama instead:
In talks with Emanuel and others, sources say, Pelosi has “set parameters” for what she wants from Barack Obama and his White House staff — no surprises, and no backdoor efforts to go around her and other Democratic leaders by cutting deals with moderate New Democrats or conservative Blue Dogs.
Specifically, Pelosi has told Emanuel that she wants to know when representatives of the incoming administration have any contact with her rank-and-file Democrats — and why, sources say.
During the Bush years, the White House set policy, and Republicans on Capitol Hill were expected to follow it. Former Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) occasionally lashed out at former White House chief of staff Andy Card or other senior administration aides when he felt they had gone too far. But in general, Republican lawmakers followed Bush’s lead on every major legislative battle, from Iraq to tax and spending bills to anti-terror policies. With the exception of immigration reform, the House fight over the $700 billion Wall Street bailout package and last week’s meltdown over a bailout for the Big Three automakers, Bush got what he wanted from Congress, especially within his own party.
Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) are signaling that they won’t tolerate a repeat with a Democrat in the White House and Democratic majorities in the House and the Senate.
Obama hasn’t yet been sworn into office, and we already have the makings of a power play. Somehow, I doubt Team Obama will sit still for this, although they probably won’t get terribly confrontational about it, either. They won’t ask permission to contact members of Congress from either Pelosi or Reid, and they shouldn’t; after all, they have as much right to vent as do the constituents, and a lot more authority behind it.
This does, though, highlight some dissonance in expectations of an Obama administration. Pelosi wouldn’t make this demand if she thought Obama would produce a progressive agenda in line with her own. It seems to indicate that Pelosi is very worried that Obama will move to the center on a broad range of issues and attempt to co-opt the Blue Dogs and some moderates to form alliances with Republicans. If Obama really wants to win re-election in 2012, he’ll have to do some of this, and will wind up defying the Left enough to make Pelosi feel uncomfortable.
Does Pelosi have enough juice to make this stick? In a word, no. The elections after November 4th, in Georgia and Louisiana, show that Democrats without Obama on the ticket and in their corner perform terribly, even in what should have been a good year for them. If Pelosi and Reid push too hard, Obama simply will become very selective in his politicking at the mid-terms, or take the more traditional role and stay out of the Congressional elections altogether. A significant loss in 2010 could undermine Pelosi even while keeping a majority, although Reid looks to be on firmer ground in the Senate.
Emanuel is just the hatchet man. Obama wields the power in this administration, and if he doesn’t get what he wants, he has less to lose than Pelosi.