Will Emanuel govern from his heart or his head?

By Dan Streib

I cautiously applaud President-elect Barack Obama in his choice of Rahm Emanuel as his chief of staff. Of course, you can’t get much more partisan than the man who was the architect behind the Democratic takeover of Congress in 2006, but there is another side to Emanuel that is very much worth noting for conservatives: He’s pragmatic.

In fact, he recently said that Obama must do what got him elected, not what’s partisan. In other words, he wants to launch some Democratic initiatives, but keep them limited so as not to overstep Obama’s mandate. Not much else Obama could have done could be more comforting to those of us who were afraid Obama would govern way to the left of President Clinton. In fact, Emanuel is a former member of the Clinton administration.

But there’s a sticking point I have with Mr. Emanuel – his ideology. Apparently he doesn’t advocate one. The Chicago Tribune said, “Emanuel’s a creative thinker but he’s no ideologue, unless his ideology is winning.” And according to the Wall Street Journal, Rahm himself said that Democrats needed to think “less ideologically and more in terms of future versus past.”

That’s funny. Because the last time I checked, an ideology was a set of beliefs guided by underlying assumptions, ideas and maybe even a certain way of looking at the world. And everybody has one of those. The thing that cracks me up is the certain breed of Democrat who says, “I don’t have an ideology, I just want government to help people.”

Well, the obvious question is: Can it be government’s role to try to establish economic equality (help people)? That type of Democrat might try to dodge the question by saying, “Oh I don’t care about that. I’m not an ideologue. I just want government to lend people a helping hand.”

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That statement actually means that that person thinks helping people is more important than limits on governmental intervention in the economy. Without intending to, they are actually passing judgment on the importance of the scope of government – they are saying it is less important than helping people. Such a judgment is an ideological statement – it’s a belief that underlies a person’s actions. Really, it’s the ideology of helping people.

Now, if Emanuel merely wants more of the compromise that is required in politics, that’s one thing.

But if he honestly sees himself as someone who is not ideologically driven (or sees compromise as a decision that is made separate from ideology), it’s clear that he hasn’t investigated his own beliefs very closely – and that is a very scary thing.

The other scary thing is that if Emanuel is merely concerned about people being too partisan because of the requirements of politics (but he is, at heart, very ideological), then we have a different problem on our hands. He might very well encourage Obama to make small moves at first to gain trust and win elections, then he’ll gradually encourage Obama to take stronger action.

That means, at the end of four years (maybe eight?), we might end up with a much farther left country than which we planned.

The problem is that some of us favor traditional government that doesn’t invade the private sector because a famous “helping people” ideology was communism.

Granted, liberalism is not communism (and Obama isn’t communist), but when limits on government action are removed for the sake of “helping people,” bad side effects can occur. Government was not initially created to help people, so using it to do so is like using a tool in the wrong way. It’s like using a hammer to pound in a screw – it’s not a smart move.

Given that bad effects of liberalism are already present in other parts of the world (for example, Europe always has much higher unemployment than we do) we might want to be cautious in fully adopting it. The problem with the Emanuel pick is that it may show that Obama won’t be cautious in adopting it; he’ll merely be cautious in implementing it.

Dan is a junior in political science who is already looking forward to Thanksgiving.