From The Economist print edition
The House Democrats' chief enforcer offers some “Big Ideas for America”
RAHM EMANUEL, a congressman from Illinois, is often compared to Newt Gingrich. The head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is clever, energetic and utterly determined to win back the House of Representatives in November. He is also, like the man who led the Republicans to just such a triumph in 1994, somewhat abrasive. He once sent a rotting fish to a pollster who irked him. When he was only 32, his aggressive fundraising helped Bill Clinton win the presidency. At a dinner afterwards, while others celebrated, he snatched up a steak knife and started plunging it into the table, naming his political enemies and yowling “Dead!” after each stab.
Some say Mr Emanuel learned to act tough to pre-empt the jeers he might otherwise have attracted as a schoolboy ballet dancer in Chicago. (He was good—his mother was apparently upset when he turned down a scholarship to the Joffrey Ballet school.) Be that as it may, his style seems to work. “Rahmbo”, as he is known, is skilled not only at squeezing money out of donors (if the pledge is too small, he lets them know), but also at making sure that the candidates who get it campaign effectively. He makes them sign agreements specifying how many appearances and fund-raising phone calls they will make. He approaches his job “with the sensibility of a Mob bookie”, gushed a profile in Rolling Stone last year.
Next week Mr Emanuel will publish his answer to Mr Gingrich's “Contract with America”, the small-government manifesto that helped Republicans capture the House in 1994. It is called “The Plan: Big Ideas for America”, and is co-written with Bruce Reed, an old chum from the Clinton White House. It has signs of being written in a hurry. Was America in the 1950s and 1960s “a land of opportunity and certainty”, as he tells us on page 31? Or has it “always been a land of opportunity, not certainty”, as he says 11 pages later? The obligatory Bush-bashing is stale and waffly: “Bush inherited the longest economic boom in history and gave the middle class the highest anxiety in memory.” But the Plan itself is solid and mostly sensible.
Probably the main reason wages have not risen much in recent years is that health-insurance premiums, which many American employers shoulder, have soared. The Plan lists ways to curb them. Doctors, rather than being paid for every test and injection they provide—an arrangement that inevitably leads to over-doctoring—should be paid by results. Patients should be given better incentives to stay healthy: insurers, for example, should push them to take free physical exams to spot ailments early. Better use of information technology could supposedly save $162 billion a year. If the system is made more efficient, Mr Emanuel thinks coverage can be extended to all American children. But he concedes that a nation as individualistic as America will probably never accept a European-style national health service—and he should know, having worked on Hillary Clinton's doomed health project in the 1990s. He argues, however, that maybe, some day, every American might receive a voucher for basic health services from the insurer of his or her choice.
Mindful of the teachers' unions, he avoids the V-word when discussing education. But he has some sensible ideas. Subsidies for those who cannot afford to go to college are currently too complex; he would replace the five main schemes with a single $3,000-a-year tax credit. Teachers should be paid for performance, not just credentials. And schoolchildren should take shorter holidays. (The Democratic Leadership Council, a moderate Clintonian body, made the same proposal last month.)
Americans are not saving enough for retirement. Well, some are. Mr Emanuel, after six years as a White House aide, earned $16m in two and a half years as an investment banker. For those who lack his quick wits and fat Rolodex, however, he proposes other ways to build up wealth. Employees should automatically be enrolled in 401(K) pension schemes unless they object. The middle class should be exempt from capital-gains tax. And families with an income of less than $100,000 a year should surrender no more than 10% of it to the taxman. As a congressman, Mr Emanuel has proved himself something of a tax wonk, co-sponsoring a plan to do to the tax code's complexities what he once fantasised about doing to his political enemies.
Perhaps the most arresting part of the Plan concerns national security, the Democrats' perennial weak spot. Again echoing Senator Clinton, he wants 100,000 more soldiers for America's overstretched army. He also wants an elite agency to fight domestic terrorism, like Britain's MI5. Of George Bush's Department of Homeland Security, he scoffs: “[It] has 180,000 employees. The London bombings in July 2005 were the work of four men with backpacks. Whose organisation chart would you rather have?” Most radically, he wants all Americans aged 18-25 to undergo three months of compulsory disaster-training.
Wouldn't it be more efficient to hire more professionals—paramedics, firemen and so forth? Not in Mr Emanuel's view. He does not want merely to prepare for future disasters; he thinks his “universal citizen service” will bring youngsters of all backgrounds together and teach them what it means to be American. “The French abandoned the idea [of national service] a decade ago, and now watch their young people riot in the streets,” he says. This is a feeble explanation for the French riots. And Mr Emanuel's scheme will remind many Americans that the Democratic Party likes social engineering more than they do.
As a whole, the Plan will help rebut the charge that the Democrats have no ideas. And if they win in November, they can always ditch the more radical parts. A Plan is less binding than a Contract, and Mr Emanuel is not the Democrats' leader in the House. At least, not yet.
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