Publisher's Note — January 20, 2011, 1:20 pm

A Country with Chicago in Charge

John R. MacArthur is publisher of Harper’s Magazine and author of the book You Can’t Be President: The Outrageous Barriers to Democracy in America. This column originally appeared in the January 19, 2010 Providence Journal.

Back in the summer of 2008, when Barack Obama was still the bright new hope of liberals, I found myself chastised for raining on the future president’s parade. My essential point — that an administration incubated and hatched in Chicago would never break with the autocratic, anti-reformist, reactionary traditions of the city’s Democratic machine — was unwelcome among Democrats desperate for a savior after eight dark years of Bush.

Obama admirer John K. Wilson wrote in the Huffington Post, “I don’t understand why . . . [MacArthur needs] to viciously attack the most progressive candidate of a major political party in American history.” Moreover, my repetition of what Wilson termed “right-wing lies and smears” moved him to ask why the “left” had a “death wish for progressive politics.” Indeed, after I noted on a New York radio show that Goldman Sachs was Obama’s No. 1 corporate donor (in bundled contributions), a tearful woman caller accused me of being a “right-winger” sowing discord among Democrats.

I figured it was pointless to respond directly to Wilson and his ilk. Obama worship was rampant, and few liberals wanted to hear such a pessimistic view of the power structure and funding of American political parties. But despite Wilson’s ignorance of American history and Chicago politics, I felt guilty about these desperate Democrats, and I sometimes wondered whether my critics didn’t have a point after all. Maybe I was being skeptical to the point of cynicism; maybe, as one leading liberal editor argued to me, the Chicago machine itself had changed, that Mayor Richard M. Daley was significantly different from his thuggish father, Richard J. Daley. Maybe Obama was in the machine, not of it, and would use its power in the cause of peace and good government.

Now it seems I wasn’t skeptical enough. The appointment of the Chicago-trained liberal-baiter Rahm Emanuel as White House chief of staff confirmed my fundamental point that the machine’s political apparatus was moving to the White House, not some fresh-faced parvenu with an African name. I also correctly predicted that after the mid-term election, Obama would cave on extending Bush’s tax cuts for the rich. The over-$250,000-a-year crowd shoulders a big part of the Democrats’ fund-raising, directly and through K Street lobbyists, so the president may be relieved to give in to the GOP.

But even I didn’t think that Chicago and the Democratic Party were so boss-ruled that Emanuel could simply be installed by the party leadership as mayor of the Second City, or that the machine could so easily send the current mayor’s brother, Bill, to replace Emanuel in the post. I thought, and wrote here, that the local Irish-Catholic barons would probably revolt against an outsider raised in the suburbs who was never a ward committeeman. That much democracy I would expect in a city that has rarely had self-government.

Evidently, however, the fix is really in. Richard Daley and his brothers, Bill, John and Michael, apparently persuaded all the major potential Irish candidates — Tom Dart, Lisa Madigan and Ed Burke — not to challenge Emanuel in next month’s primary, leaving him the only white candidate and thus the favorite to succeed Richard Daley. Meanwhile, brother Bill, Rahm’s ally and Richie’s closest adviser, gets to be, in effect, deputy president without having got a single vote. Whether Bill ever wanted to occupy City Hall himself, he now seems to prefer the allure and power of Washington, where he served as Bill Clinton’s commerce secretary.

Sadly, this is no ordinary story about intra-party politics; it’s a bad thing for America, liberal Democrats and organized labor, which is in its death throes. With Chicago in charge of the country, reform becomes all but impossible. Foolish things have been said about “pro-business” Bill Daley moving Obama “to the center,” as if the president remotely resembled a left-winger. Obama began in the center and has been moving right ever since.

The main thing to understand is that Daley and Emanuel are all about self-interest, not the public interest. As the Chicago Tribune’s John Kass puts it, “To the Daleys, the political center is Chicago, their ancestral home.”

Nevertheless, there is a destructive ideological part of the Daley appointment and Emanuel’s ascent, despite their non-ideological devotion to power. Emanuel and Daley were two of the three principal Clinton lobbyists in the campaign to pass the corporate-backed, anti-labor North American Free Trade Agreement in 1993, and Daley helped push through the even greater killer of U.S. jobs, Permanent Normal Trade Relations (PNTR) with China, in 2000. Both are former employees of investment banks, which have a burning interest in “free trade” and cross-border investment deals facilitated by “free trade.” Obama has already reneged on his Ohio presidential-primary pledge in 2008 to reform NAFTA and has let drop the pro-union Employee Free Choice Act.

His naming of Daley is the final nail in the coffin of his 2008 campaign alliance with unions. Between them, NAFTA and PNTR have sent millions of good-paying American factory jobs out of America, so it’s pertinent to ask what Bill Daley will bring to the table on behalf of U.S. workers.

So far, as Ralph Nader notes, the signs are all anti-blue collar. No doubt it’s Daley’s idea for Obama to speak at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce headquarters on Feb. 7, instead of making its president, Tom Donahue, cross Lafayette Park to plead his case at the White House. Chances are, Obama won’t be dropping by AFL-CIO headquarters next door to discuss raising the minimum wage.

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