Democratic Party unrest plays out in Emanuel controversy

White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel has become a reluctant central figure in the battle between liberals and centrists in the Democratic Party.

A spate of recent reports have portrayed Emanuel, known for his aggressive brand of Washington politics, as either the voice of reason in a weak, liberal White House or the wet blanket preventing President Barack Obama from pursuing the kind of change he promised as a candidate.

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Emanuel has become the flash point in those arguments as liberals express betrayal over Obama's failure to convince Congress to pass a public option in healthcare reform and close the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

In recent stories and columns in The Washington Post, Emanuel is described as a political pragmatist, pushing Obama to accept realistic limitations on both issues in order to secure smaller victories over abject failures. Or as the Post's Dana Milbank put it, Emanuel is "the only person keeping Obama from becoming Jimmy Carter."

The president, in turn, is depicted as unsure, beholden to liberal groups' desires before ultimately heeding Emanuel's realistic assessment of the political environment and caving to centrists in a fashion reminiscent of the triangulation of Emanuel's other White House boss -- President Bill Clinton.

The culprits behind those stories are not Emanuel or those who support him, Democratic strategists say, but instead the liberal Netroots crowd disgusted by what they view as appeasement to the center.

Some of those efforts to weaken Emanuel are coming from inside the building at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, one Democratic strategist said.

"There are people in the White House who are trying to get rid of Rahm, and they are leaking everything they can," said the strategist, who is close to Emanuel. "Some of it's personal, some of it's professional[ly] judgmental, but there is no doubt there's an effort."

Those critics think Emanuel is "too close to the Blue Dogs in the House and too ready to compromise."

But what Rahm represents to the left dates back to liberal anger with Clinton and his kindred spirits at the centrist Democratic Leadership Council (DLC). Emanuel is seen by some progressives as wanting to win, to a fault by sacrificing principles of the party.

"Rahm believes in being elected; not in the glory of losing or failing," the strategist said.

That mentality has never sat well with some prominent bloggers. Just this past week, The Huffington Post, a force in the Democratic Party, ran this headline: "Rahm Emanuel: Obama's Chief of Sabotage."

In that story, author Dan Froomkin said that for Emanuel, "victory is everything -- even if you have to give up your core values to win, and even if you could have won while sticking to them."

"The Rahm Emanuel that Obama hired is the poster child for the timid, pseudo-pragmatism that is inimical to the idealistic Obama agenda so many excited voters responded to [in November 2008]," Froomkin wrote. "And it's a pragmatism that is absolutely killing the Democratic Party in the long run, because American voters have an intrinsic distrust of politicians they see as tacking with the polls or shying away from a fight."

Those kind of attacks have led centrists in the party to defend Emanuel, even former Clinton senior administration official Lanny Davis, a fan of the public option but someone who says that he and Emanuel did not get along in the White House. ("That is an understatement," Davis said.).

Davis served with Emanuel in the Clinton White House for 14 months, and Davis said that while he has not always been a fan of Emanuel's, he is a "big fan of his strategy for the president."

Emanuel understands, Davis said, "the value of getting something done as opposed to being ideologically pure."

Because of that, and because of Emanuel's personality, the former Illinois congressman is easy to attack. He's an easier bogeyman for the Netroots and The Huffington Post than the nation's first black president, who was elected on a mantle of hope and change.

"They don't want to attack President Obama directly," said Davis, a columnist for The Hill. "They use Rahm Emanuel as a surrogate. I think the campaign to push Rahm out will fail."

Emanuel's stewardship of the 2006 Democratic takeover of the House did little to curtail the critics.

In an open letter to the president that was posted on his website Friday, liberal filmmaker Michael Moore praises Emanuel for his role in winning back the House, but attacks how he has served as White House chief of staff.

The letter, titled, "Replace Rahm with Me," states, "Rahm Emanuel took on the job of returning Congress to the Democrats. No one believed it could be done. But he did it. Big time. He put the fear of God into the party of Rush and Newt. They had never been so scared."

Yet, Moore claims that Emanuel lost his way: "Rahm, poor Rahm, has turned into a fighter -- not of Republicans, but of the left. He called those of us who want universal health care 'f***ing retarded.'"

According to Froomkin, Emanuel made his reputation by "getting a bunch of conserva-Dems elected in purple states in 2006, winning the party control of the House while at the same time crippling its progressive agenda."

That kind of criticism is baffling to Democrats like Davis.

"Without Rahm Emanuel, there would be no House Democratic majority," Davis said. "We would have Speaker [John] Boehner [R-Ohio]. That is a fact that the left does not seem to care about."

Given the tone of the stories about Emanuel, many in Washington and in the White House press corps have wondered if the nimble politico is at the root of the leaks to The Washington Post.

Davis rejected that idea outright.

"His loyalty is so intense, is so 100 percent, almost to a fault," Davis said.

Emanuel has many relationships with the reporters inside the Beltway, but he picks his spots when he wants to talk.

In February, for example, The Hill published an article quoting congressional Democrats who blamed Emanuel for the stalled healthcare reform effort. Emanuel and his office declined to comment on the record or on background.

The White House has sought to play down the idea of any rifts between Emanuel and the president or Emanuel and the rest of the staff as press secretary Robert Gibbs spent much of a critical week for healthcare reform defending Emanuel.

"The president believed this in the campaign, the president believes this in the White House, that we all work together as a team, that we rise and fall together as one team," Gibbs said. "The president greatly values the skills that Rahm brings to the job of White House chief of staff. I don't think there's anybody better suited in this job right now as we're trying to get healthcare reform through Congress."

As for reports that Emanuel tried unsuccessfully to rein Obama in early on the public option and closing Guantanamo Bay, Gibbs said it is not unusual for advisers to the president to offer advice only to see him go another way.

"We all give advice to the president on a daily basis," Gibbs said. "The president makes decisions, and we move forward. When we move forward, nobody moves forward with more determination than the chief of staff."

The stories of internal riffs are coming at a bad time for a White House, which is seeking unity in the party to pass healthcare reform.

But Jack Quinn, former chief of staff to Vice President Al Gore, said that reported controversies and Washington parlor games are not a distraction for those working in the West Wing.

Quinn, who has known Emanuel for close to 20 years, said that Emanuel is "focused like a laser beam" on the president's agenda, and the outside drama is not enough to distract him from that.

"This is the greatest multi-tasker I've ever met," Quinn said.

This article was updated at 8:53 p.m.