As the man who guided (and pressured and arm-twisted) Democrats to historic congressional gains in 2006, what is Rep. Rahm Emanuel doing now about party members like Rep. Dan Boren who have balked at publicly endorsing Sen. Barack Obama?
Emanuel interjected before I could get my question out.
"Look, I talked to Dan, and I talked to all those guys," he said. "I'm not worried. I just think that's all -- it's reporters who, you know, just a little too much..." He trailed off, perhaps cognizant of present company. "If you had a real problem, I would deal with it. But it's not a problem."
As proof, Emanuel references Indiana Rep. Brad Ellsworth, another Democrat who hasn't yet endorsed Obama. "Brad's got flooding in his district, his people are flooding," he said. "If you ask Brad what he's doing in November, he'll tell you: he's voting for Barack Obama. If you ask Boren, 'I'm voting for Barack Obama.' I mean, it's what they're doing in November, for those guys, that matters. Not what they're doing today, when they're working on their districts. And they'll support their candidate."
The famously acid-tongued Chicagoan may be right, Democrats like Ellsworth and Boren may not pose a problem. But the Republican National Committee is sure trying to make them one. GOP officials have blasted out press releases highlighting Boren's claim that Obama has the "most liberal" voting record in the Senate. "You go ask Boren," Emanuel says, "he'll tell you his view is that that was taken out of context, that he is going to support the nominee."
(He was right: "My comments were taken out of context and as I have said from day one I will vote for the Democratic nominee in November," Boren told The Huffington Post.)
As for Rahm, his support was never in doubt. "I put my life into electing Democrats, okay?" he says.
And so it's understandable when he describes in some detail the agony of being forced to spend the entire 17-month Democratic presidential primary on the sidelines. "I didn't want to get between two friends. This is not what I want to do. I don't want to choose... I talked to Hillary today, she's a friend of mine. Why do I want to be in a position of picking between two friends?"
He continues: "It was a personal level." The Clintons are "dear friends" who he worked for "intimately," and "unlike others" in the Clinton administration, he notes, Bill Clinton came to campaign for him when he ran for office. "Everything I asked Bill Clinton or Hillary Clinton to do when I was chair of the [Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee], they did willingly. For the DCCC, Bill Clinton went to 36 districts, countless emails for fundraising, countless fundraisers around the country. There's not a thing I asked him or her to do that they didn't do. Now I'm not going to -- maybe other people can easily throw that away, but I wasn't going to do that."
On the other hand, Barack and Michelle are friends, he says. "I've known him a long time. We used to sit around helping our governor get elected, help those strategy meetings, stuff like that."
Indeed, they share the same political breeding ground. I asked him about the phrase "Chicago-style politics," ubiquitous in profiles of both him and Obama. "Chicago-style politics? Well, first of all, politics is our all-season sport... People always know somebody or someway or somehow to make it into politics, it's not some distant thing. Look at today, just pick up the paper. The Speaker of the House, who's a Democrat, is the one encouraging people to file articles of impeachment against the governor, who's a Democrat. That usually how we do it?" He laughs. "So that's Chicago-style politics. A lot of elbows, a lot of tackling."
And Obama is a candidate with sharp elbows who can win, Emanuel notes, before ticking off a series of states won by George Bush that he thinks may go blue in '08: Colorado, Virginia, New Mexico, Nevada -- he stops himself. "But that's not for me, that's for the [Obama] campaign." He veers back to the electoral map. "I would also put Ohio in that category."
But for all his optimism about the national trend towards Democrats, he remains skeptical that Howard Dean's 50-state strategy has much to do with it. "Surely it didn't have anything to do" with the three straight Democratic victories in special House elections this year, two of them in overwhelmingly Republican districts. "I know what we did. I know what the race was about in each of those cases, and what won it. We had superiorly recruited our candidates this cycle. They had inadequate candidates."
As for Emanuel's personal political future, I ask him about the Robert Novak column that suggested he was eying Obama's potentially soon-vacant Senate seat. "Please..." he mutters. "First of all, it did not say that, it said the Speaker wanted me [to run], it didn't say I wanted to. Just go read the piece." I said I thought there was a presumption in the story that Emanuel himself wanted the spot. "There was no presumption. So let me just disabuse you of presumption."
For the record, he was right about Novak's piece. I am disabused.