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Rahm Emanuel Is Andrew Cuomo: Hillary Are You Listening?

03/23/2015 08:05 am ET | Updated May 23, 2015
Tasos Katopodis via Getty Images

Rahm Emanuel is in trouble. His re-election as Mayor of Chicago is no longer a lock. His challenger has come out of nowhere, parlayed unease with his right-wingish economic policies, and a big controversy, to gain real traction in the April 7 run-off. Her name is Zephyr Teachout.

Wait, that's wrong. His name is Jesus Garcia. But if you're looking for explanations, it's the right mistake to make. Teachout rode the same wave, organized similar political forces in New York, and got almost 40 percent of the Democratic gubernatorial primary vote in New York, against the previously formidable Andrew Cuomo.

What's up with that? Well, the parallels are eerie. Pundits point to Emanuel's tough guy personality, budget and financial issues, and coziness with corporate interests, stoked by a particular controversy about school closings. In New York, the same complaints emerged, but the controversy was about public ethics.

It's a description that fits both men. Both have records that include major accomplishments. But both men made a political calculation that backfired. Emanuel and Cuomo are "progr-actionaries." They're reliably left on social issues and reliably right on economic issues like tax policy, unions, and corporate giveaways.

It turns out that voters, especially Democrats, want no part of that calculated positioning, no part of austerity economics, Tea Party cuts in government spending, and tax policies that favor the 1%. That may be sound policy, or not. But it's a lesson that any politician needs to understand. Are you listening, Hillary?

After years of unchallenged dominance, the era of supply-side economics is over, at least to voters. Progressives and voters have been shaping an economic message that promotes demand-side economics, things that increase the spending power of middle-income and poor Americans. Jobs are created, not by bankers and CEO's whose taxes are cut, but by minimum wage increases, progressive tax policies, and government spending on human and physical infrastructure.

Cuomo/Emanuel missed an electoral shift, and are paying a political price, as they should in a democracy. Emanuel seems like he will struggle through with a Cuomo-esque margin, and egg on his face.

It will get more interesting. The organized forces promoting progressive, demand-side economics will shortly turn to the 2016 Presidential race. Hillary's inevitability notwithstanding, those folks are rumbling that her economic policies suffer from the same defects as Cuomo/Emanuel's do. She could ignore the problem: After all, where will the left go in 2016, to Elizabeth Warren? Or Jeb Bush? Unlikely.

But the lesson is there to be learned, if she's listening. Cuomo/Emanuel's electoral problems flow from a fundamental disconnect with voters over economic issues. Candidates supporting austerity, supply-side economics face electoral trouble, especially in Democratic primaries: Candidates who support the minimum wage, living wage, investment in schools, hospitals, roads and bridge, tax the 1%, an end to corporate giveaways, they prosper. I happen to think it's good economics. But I know it's good politics.