Rahm Emanuel was the chief legislative proponent of the North American Free Trade Agreement under President Clinton. As an investment banker, he publicly campaigned on the pages of the Wall Street Journal to give China Most Favored Nation Status. Under President Obama, he was the chief architect of the deal that coddled insurance and drug companies by negotiating away the public option - a public option that union leaders said was crucial for their support of health care legislation.
I could go on and on with examples from Emanuel's career just like this. You know the story -- and I won't bore you with it. And so considering this record of doggedly opposing the labor movement's most basic public policy priorities, you might expect that in Emanuel's newly announced run for Chicago mayor, labor movement leaders would at least remain neutral. You might even expect labor to consider funding a full-fledged campaign against Emanuel in a race where there are expected to be many viable and more progressive candidates.
According to Politico, you would be wrong:
"If I lived in Chicago, I would vote for him for mayor," said Gerald McEntee, president of giant public workers union AFSCME...McEntee said that Emanuel's record was, on balance "for progressive forces and ideas."
"When he was in the House he was an excellent vote for progressive forces," McEntee said. "He had a role to play in the White House. When he could, within that role, he was for progressive ideas and forces."
Let's set aside the hideously -- almost laughably -- dishonest attempt to say Rahm Emanuel was a progressive force inside the White House, and let's instead look at the deeper truth this anecdote highlights -- the truth about why progressives are so powerless right now.
In my recent book, The Uprising, I devoted a chapter to the rank corruption, cronyism and insiderism that plagues the Institutional Left in Washington, D.C. -- specifically, a form of corruption, croynism and insiderism whereby leaders of "progressive" organizations regularly sell out their organizations' missions on behalf of their fellow D.C. insiders. This is not a universal plague -- there are, indeed, some terrific and honest progressive organizations in the nation's capital. But it is a widespread phenomenon -- and this McEntee/Emanuel story is about as perfect an example of that phenomenon as I've ever seen.
That it comes from a political actor as amoral as McEntee is no surprise. Remember, while McEntee is paid by workers' hard-earned wages to jealously champion those workers' agenda regardless of party, McEntee made headlines in 2007 telling Democratic congressional leaders that he would personally crush labor-oriented groups looking to exert pressure on Democratic legislators:
"I'm the sheriff of the incumbent-protection program, and if you need help, let me know. In Blue America, there's no room for PACs to chase vulnerable members they have differences with."
So with McEntee, this is certainly par for the course. And while Politico notes that his personal endorsement is not an official endorsement by AFSCME, the announcement goes a long way to further highlighting how progressives outside of Washington have been undermined by those purporting to act in their name inside of Washington.
This kind of thing is a huge, huge problem for an obvious reason that goes way beyond one race in Chicago and way beyond animus toward one career ladder-climber like Emanuel: When progressive organizations offer support to those politicians who have undermined those organizations goals, those organizations are sending a clear message. They are telling all politicians that they can expect support regardless of whether those politicians ignore progressive demands.
Call this the "Thank You Sir, May I Have Another!" dynamic. It's totally destructive -- and the more we become aware of it, the more we can understand how to counteract it in the cause of rebuilding a truly principled labor movement that is so critical to this country and to the progressive cause.
Here's hoping other unions in Washington and across the country don't follow McEntee's lead.