Rahm Emanuel swept Chicago off its feet. Scott Walker and Chris Christie have shaken up Wisconsin and New Jersey. Larger-than-life characters are fun to watch—but can they govern? Plus, Jonathan Alter on Rahm as Chicago's new king.
Rahm Emanuel, who just cruised to victory in Chicago, has one overwhelming asset: his image as a foul-mouthed ass-kicker.
All the tales of Rahm dropping F-bombs and berating people and sending a pollster a dead fish apparently persuaded a majority of voters Tuesday that a mayor with such qualities could get the job done. But there is a larger message as well, one that applies to Chris Christie and Scott Walker and Michele Bachmann and even Sarah Palin:
They are earthy, larger-than-life characters. In an age when people are sick to death of cautious, blow-dried, poll-tested politicians—when the profession has basically been discredited—they come across as anti-politicians: real, tough-talking, plain-spoken, rough-edged people you might banter with in a bar. That doesn’t make them successful leaders—indeed, many anti-politicians are polarizing to the point of ineffectiveness—but they are headline-grabbing machines who know how to break through the static.
Those who stand apart from politics have always had a certain box-office appeal.
Their actual personalities may be more nuanced. I’ve known Rahm to also be a cerebral guy who cares about the nuances of policy, and he choked up last fall, talking about his parents, at an East Room ceremony making his departure from the White House. “Far from being a head-busting capo,” David Brooks wrote in the New York Times, “I've found him to be more thick-skinned about criticism than most people I write about.” But it doesn’t matter: Saturday Night Live portrays him as the wild-eyed Rahmbo, and that is how the average beer-drinker at the Billy Goat Tavern sees the guy.
• Shushannah Walshe: Inside the Palin Tell-All• Jonathan Alter: Rahm Emanuel, New King of Chicago• Dirk Johnson: Wisconsin’s Secret WeaponChristie, New Jersey’s rookie governor, is a big, hulking man, which gives him the aura of a high school wrestling coach, and he’s tried to body-slam opponents in slashing state spending. But most telling was how he handled the flap over staying in Florida for five days as a furious snowstorm walloped his state. “I made a promise to my children…that I was going to take them to Disney World,” he declared, and “I was not going to look at my children and say we’re not going…I had a great five days.” Translation: I’m a dad, I did what most of you would like to do, I’m not going to apologize, and if you don’t like it, shove it.
Walker, Wisconsin’s confrontational new governor, has positioned himself as the champion of the downtrodden taxpayer by taking on public service unions whose members pay far less than private workers for health and pension benefits. Walker also seems to be losing support for taking the battle one step further, by demanding that the unions surrender some of their collective bargaining rights. But he’s been interviewed on the network news shows and the entire country is debating what Scott Walker is doing. Could most people even name the governor he succeeded in January? (The answer is Jim Doyle.)
Palin, who often seems more interested in picking fights than pursuing policy, nonetheless excels at finger-in-the-eye politics. Her attacks excite her supporters and infuriate her detractors. After Vanity Fair published a harsh profile, Palin lashed out at “impotent, limp and gutless reporters” who rely on anonymous sources. Limp? Who else questions her critics’ manhood like that? When recent surveys showed her losing support for a potential presidential run, Palin acknowledged that “I get my butt kicked” in such polls. That’s the language of the street, not the executive mansion.
This is not a new strain in American life; those who stand apart from politics have always had a certain box-office appeal. When Arnold Schwarzenegger won the California governorship in 2003, he brought a high-wattage celebrity aura to Sacramento. But the Terminator failed to zap the state’s dysfunctional political culture and left office with abysmal approval ratings. When Jesse Ventura won Minnesota’s governorship in 1998, he called reporters “jackals” and stiff-armed critics who complained about his doing color commentary for the short-lived XFL football league. He lasted one term.
Barack Obama did not seem like an ordinary White House candidate when he burst onto the national scene in 2007 and 2008, not just because of his race but because of an inspirational, post-partisan appeal. Once elected, of course, he crashed into the realities of governing in a hyperpartisan capital. The outsider became the establishment. When the president said he didn’t move faster on the Gulf oil spill because he had to find out “whose ass to kick,” it was a noteworthy departure from his professorial style.
Now that Obama’s former chief of staff has won the City Hall job of his dreams, Chicago will see whether a bawdy and brawling mayor is up to the job. Emanuel faces a budget gap that could reach $1 billion, crumbling infrastructure, decaying schools and a host of other urban ills. It will take more than curse words to tackle those problems.
Howard Kurtz is The Daily Beast's Washington bureau chief. He also hosts CNN's weekly media program Reliable Sources on Sundays at 11 a.m. ET. The longtime media reporter and columnist for The Washington Post, Kurtz is the author of five books.