Almost exactly four years ago, I sat in Rahm Emanuel's office, asking him about the Democrats' chances of taking control of the House of Representatives for a film I was making about the 2006 election, HouseQuake. He was stressed out, and it showed. Even as the camera rolled, he rubbed his eyes and head vigorously and described the trials and the intensity of this 24-7 job that he had taken on -- that of Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman. It seemed like a thankless and rather impossible task at the time: help bring Democrats out of their collective funk after six years of George W. Bush and so many failed efforts across all three branches of government; convince Democratic candidates to run in Republican stronghold districts; and teach them, one by one, how to carry a winning message and raise money -- lots of it.
Then-Minority Leader, now-Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi made a bold move in appointing Emanuel as Chairman. She knew he would break china to get the job done. And he did. But Rahm was singularly focused: he needed to win 15 seats, and personal and ideological considerations were secondary to victory. "There was no sentiment in this," he told me after the Democrats' November victory. "It was pure winning."
As we look toward another midterm campaign season about to kick into high gear, the parallels and vast differences between now and then are striking. Both parties have taken as blueprint the strategy that Emanuel pioneered: aggressive recruitment of fresh political faces who "fit" their districts, relentless fundraising, and a willingness to strike at the opponent's jugular if need be.
But it's a dramatically changed climate. Democrats have gone from having a dearth of power to possessing unified control of Congress and the White House. House Republicans have gone from defending an unpopular administration to trying to derail another through unyielding opposition. Hundreds of thousands of Americans have lost their jobs and their homes. People are angry and frustrated and perhaps inclined to "throw the (incumbent) bums out," as they did in 2006 and 2008.
Does that mean we're headed for another Republican Revolution? Rep. Pete Sessions, National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman, has said that he will debut a document similar to Newt Gingrich's 1994 "Contract with America" in September and recently told reporters, "Anything less (than retaking the House), and I do not fulfill my mission statement." If that happens, it likely will be the result of Republicans' taking advantage of voters' unhappiness and focusing blame on those monopolizing power in Washington. In other words, Republicans could win by acting like Rahm.
When I interviewed strategist James Carville four years ago, he asked, "Does anyone remember Washington before Rahm?" Wherever one may fall on the political spectrum, the answer was then, and is now, "Of course not."
HouseQuake will screen at the Majestic Crest theatre in Los Angeles at 7:30 PM on Sunday, May 16, as part of the SOMETHING TO TALK ABOUT independent documentary screening series. A post-film panel will include Congressman Howard Berman, former McCain Communications Director Dan Schnur, and KNBC political analyst Sherry Bebitch Jeffe. The film will premiere on Video on Demand on the same day. For screening details and to reserve tickets, visit www.indiedocs.net. For information on HouseQuake, visit www.housequakethefilm.com.