Emanuel Continues to Show Political Savvy

by Stuart Rothenberg August 27, 2007 · 12:05 AM EDT

I have received so many silly news releases over the years that when I get a truly smart, politically astute one, I just have to take note of it.

Not surprisingly, this one came from the office of House Democratic Caucus Chairman Rahm Emanuel (Ill.). Emanuel, of course, chaired the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in the previous cycle and is widely regarded as among the savviest political strategists on Capitol Hill.

The brief three-paragraph release, which is dated Aug. 9 and bills itself as a “response” to President Bush’s “announcement of a renewed push for corporate tax cuts,” is an example of how to make friends and influence people, instead of how to pander to true believers while giving the opposition more ammunition.

Emanuel’s release opens with the news that Bush favored cutting corporate taxes to keep U.S. business competitive internationally.

But while other Democrats would have immediately launched into a message of class warfare, Emanuel’s release continues: “The Democratic Congress remains committed to working with the White House, American businesses and Congressional Republicans to grow our economy, strengthen American competitiveness, and help middle class families struggling to make ends meet.”

Initially, then, the Emanuel release stresses cooperation, bipartisanship, economic growth and American competitiveness. That’s a smart approach, particularly given Congress’ low job ratings and the public’s antipathy to partisan posturing and legislative gridlock.

When the Emanuel release does turn to the substance of the Bush approach, it notes that “corporate profits are at a record high” and proceeds to stress Congressional Democrats’ commitment to “delivering tax relief to American families,” including Congress’ efforts “to end the Parent Penalty Tax on middle class families — also known as the Alternative Minimum Tax.”

So instead of sending a message that the party is against tax cuts or against business, Emanuel puts the party in favor of tax relief, particularly tax relief for middle-class families. And instead of throwing down the gauntlet or beating up the already-damaged Bush, the release puts the onus on the president to “cooperate” with Democratic efforts to deliver tax relief.

None of this, of course, obligates Emanuel or any member of the Democratic Caucus to support Bush’s corporate tax cut idea. I doubt few if any will. And it certainly doesn’t prevent them from using more red meat rhetoric when talking with the party’s base.

You can bet that when the time is right, Emanuel’s message machine will go into overdrive portraying Bush as out of touch with the middle class and proposing corporate tax cuts that add to budget woes and undercut the government’s ability to fund existing programs. But not now. Now is the time to sound like a grown-up.

Emanuel’s approach is exactly what it has been for more than a year: measured and even modest. He understands that Democrats are still auditioning for 2008 and the race for the White House, and it is important for Democrats not to give Republicans ammunition at the same time that Republicans are digging themselves even deeper into a political hole.

Independents and ticket-splitters will decide whether the 2008 election is a tight one or another Democratic blowout, and the language, approach and tone of the Emanuel message is a perfect way to convince convincible voters that Democrats aren’t the dangerous tax-hikers that Republicans have insisted they are.

Republican Congressional challengers are already accusing Democratic Members of Congress of supporting tax increases, and you can bet those GOP attacks will intensify into next year.

But the approach used by Emanuel and his communications staff could cushion Democratic officeholders and candidates against the GOP charges, allowing Democrats to keep the focus on the Bush and Republican records over the past eight years.

We’ll see whether other Democrats are as savvy as Emanuel, or whether they can’t resist a knee-jerk attack. Once again, they’d be smart to follow the Illinois Democrat’s lead.