The Democratic Party indeed must be in very bad shape if the boss of Chicago is relinquishing his nearly absolute power. Mayor Richard M. Daley's bombshell announcement that he won't seek reelection is the most significant indication yet that the majority party will lose a great many congressional seats in November and that its love affair with Barack Obama may be on the wane.
Daley's decision to vacate City Hall after six terms cannot be for "personal reasons" -- reasons that PR people instruct their clients to recite. (Daley merely said it was "time to move on.")
Rumor has it that his wife's cancer was a major factor, and I don't want to suggest that Richie Daley is immune to such considerations of mortality. But in the Second City, the mayor comes second only to God, and I don't see how Daley could so brusquely terminate a political dynasty founded by his father -- a legacy that must, at times, have made him feel immortal -- unless something was terribly wrong.
Only in Chicago is the mayor's office more attractive to a professional politician than, say, the U.S. Senate or an important committee chairmanship in the U.S. House. As chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, Dan Rostenkowski was arguably the fifth most powerful person in the U.S. political hierarchy. But he still held on to his post as 32nd Ward Democratic committeeman and never completely lost his hankering to become Chicago's mayor.
Daley's popularity has been way down because of such foolish boondoggles as the leasing of the city's parking meters to a private company. Lately his habitual arrogance has continued as he unapologetically shops other public services, such as recycling, to the private sector. But no serious rival had emerged to run in next year's mayoral primary and none was likely to surface.
The Daley family's genius, passed down from Richard J. to Richard M. and his brothers Bill, John and Michael, has been to divide and rule the machine's foes along ethnic and racial lines. Pitting whites against blacks, Poles against Croats, Italians against Germans and the Irish against everybody has long proved a fruitful strategy. It is remarkable that in historically-racist Chicago, Harold Washington, an African-American, was able to become mayor, albeit briefly and thanks only to a temporary split in the Irish- and white-dominated Democratic machine. It is more remarkable still, given Chicago's demographics, that the city has never had a Polish mayor.
Daley's move, I suspect, is mainly motivated by the decline in the fortunes of the national Democratic Party and his reduced ability to maneuver locally without sufficient federal aid. Daley appeared stronger than ever after the 2008 election: His own, locally-developed candidate had taken the White House, and the new president's entourage included close allies of the mayor such as Valerie Jarrett, Rahm Emanuel, David Axelrod and Arne Duncan. Emanuel, as White House chief of staff, was expected to deliver large quantities of pork, and Obama, too, was counted on to bring home the bacon in the form of the 2016 Olympic Games.
But Emanuel evidently got distracted and hasn't sent back enough money, while Obama fumbled his Olympics lobbying rather badly. Daley has to be very disappointed.
Facing a $655 million city budget deficit this year, and with Illinois state finances in shambles, it can't be much fun being mayor of Chicago these days. Meanwhile, the pragmatist in Daley is anticipating a loss of his party's control of the House, or at least a steep drop in its Democratic majority -- and with it, the ability to shift taxpayer money to projects that benefit the machine's patronage system.
The city's own tax base offers little hope for rescue, in large measure because the Daleys (Richie and his brother Bill, as commerce secretary under Bill Clinton) and Rostenkowski helped drive away their hometown industries by supporting self-destructive "free trade" policies, including the North American Free Trade Agreement. Nowadays, Daley sorely needs the taxes and salaries paid by the Zenith television and radio plants -- gone to Mexico and Taiwan -- that once vibrated across Rostenkowski's old congressional district on the Northwest Side.
The Olympics were Daley's bailout plan, the ultimate combination of public money and private boodle. Had the city won its bid, he would have served an eighth term and presided, like Caesar, at the torch-lighting ceremony. But the realities of a declining city in a declining region in a declining country called a halt to his Pharaonic ambition.
Daley will no doubt try to anoint his successor, or at least block any enemies from seizing the throne. I expect someone truly homegrown will win next February's Democratic primary, despite Emanuel's fancy White House resume and big-money, investment-bank connections.
Emanuel joined the machine as a young adult and served four terms in the U.S. House from a partly Chicago district, but he grew up in the suburbs and suffers the disadvantage of never having been a ward committeeman. The more likely ruler of the Daley fief is brother Bill; Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart; or the family's sometime South Side rival, Alderman Ed Burke, chairman of the City Council's Finance Committee -- all of whom are Irish.
A split among the Daleys, Dart, and Burke could help Emanuel, or even a prominent African-American candidate. But the Daleys got rid of their top black talent, Obama, by sending him to Washington, so I'd bet on the Irish.
John R. MacArthur, who grew up in the Chicago area, is a monthly contributor and publisher of Harper's Magazine.
Cross-posted from Harper's Magazine.