As the Left seek control, mayor tells them to ‘chill’

Even in private there’s no American politician more intense than Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

He’s all about control. And when he doesn’t have control – of his message, of events – he clenches his jaw and all but bites through his teeth.

Emanuel, famous for taking that steakhouse knife and stabbing the table while shouting the names of Democratic enemies, is probably the last person you’d ever think would tell angry Democrats to "take a chill pill."

But that’s what Rahm’s doing. Telling them to chill, because, he says, Democrats won’t take back power in 2018.

"It ain’t gonna happen in 2018," Emanuel said Monday at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business in California. "Take a chill pill, man. You gotta be in this for the long haul."

And so the troubled mayor of Chicago tries to hold off the political left angry at the Democratic Party’s complete failure to stop President Donald Trump.

And he tells everybody to just chill.

Why is this important?

Rahm’s call for a national chill comes just as the hard Democratic left has been using anger – some might call it hysteria – to wrest control of the Democratic Party apparatus away from party insiders who lost everything to Trump.

The Democratic establishment lost on national and local levels. But the left is having success organizing the party’s base, keeping them on message, even engaging in loud and angry theater. All of this is not just about organizing against Trump.

More importantly, it’s being used to drive the old Democratic establishment off the stage.

And that establishment, wounded and frightened at loss of control, doesn’t like it.

Democratic Party insiders – those who stacked the deck against Sen. Bernie Sanders to protect Hillary Clinton – are trying to do one thing:

Hold onto power.

But they’re doing everything wrong. The Republican establishment did everything wrong too, including trying to co-opt and herd the conservative tea party movement.

That backfired. It led to Trump.

And Rahm is also of the establishment on the Democratic side, and rather like the Dutch boy in the old story, trying to put his fingers into the leaks in the dike and save the day.

"Winning’s everything," the mayor of a city riven by homicides and political cynicism told the Stanford group the other day. "If you don’t win, you can’t make the public policy. I say that because it is hard for people in our party to accept that principle. Sometimes, you’ve just got to win, OK? Our party likes to be right, even if they lose."

So put principle aside and be pragmatic, he tells Democrats.

That might be smart politics but in the end, asking people to put their principles aside to let their opponents maintain power is a recipe for disaster.

There is no passion to it. Democrats found this out with Clinton in November.

But Rahm isn’t the only one who’s told party activists to put principle aside for pragmatism. If you think you’ve heard it before, you’re right.

Establishment Republicans of the Bush-McCain-Graham wing were saying it. They said it for years, offering up Mitt Romney as a savior, trying to hold onto power as their base finally, inexorably, drifted away from them.

As I’ve said before, Trump isn’t a cause of all this change. He’s oblivious to history. I don’t think he can see himself in context. He is his own sun and moon, but in this he is not unique among politicians.

Trump is not a cause. He’s a symptom, an effect, a consequence of the GOP establishment manipulation of the Republican base for decades. Finally, the Republican base had enough.

The GOP crackup was well documented, with many media references over the years to what journalists saw as an unsettling phenomenon: the angry voter.

Leading up to Trump, the media narrative suggested that Republicans angry at party leadership were therefore irrational, even perhaps exhibiting a sign of group mental illness.

Establishment biscuit eaters who characterized the angry voter as irrational were simply protecting their masters and their own place in the food line. But when Trump came along, they couldn’t see what was happening to them.

There is nonsense circulating now about a tea party of the left, but that is a dream of a Democratic establishment hoping to herd them. There is no tea party of the left.

But there is an "angry voter" of the left, angry about Trump, yes, but also angry at Democratic insiders who led them into the wilderness, where, Emanuel says, the party will wander for years. And they’re determined to push the party further to the left.

Emanuel wants the Democratic Party to return to a time when it pretended to exist in the political center of a center-right America. But that was back when the Clintons were in the White House, cutting deals with congressional conservatives for welfare reform and more cops on the streets. There is no going back.

Rahm argues for middle-of-the-road candidates, be they athletes, veterans, and so on. But this strategy isn’t about ideas. It is tactical, about selecting actors to play certain types.

It is a Chicago thing, a political machine thing. And idealistic young Democrats won’t see the Chicago Democratic machine as their holy grail.

Americans are motivated by their wallets, yes, but also by ideas. What they’re not motivated by are insiders holding on.

It is something the establishment Republicans were forced to learn. It cost them dearly. And establishment Democrats are learning it now.

John Kass is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His Twitter handle is @john_kass.