If reports are to be believed, Emanuel wanted Obama to be less ambitious ideologically but more aggressive politically. Emanuel likes winning, and so he thinks the president should pick battles he can win. Emanuel opposed the idea of shutting down Guantanamo Bay within a year. He argued that Obama should have gone for a smaller, more digestible health-care bill that expanded coverage and attracted bipartisan support. He offered similar advice on a cap-and-trade bill. But on these and other issues, Obama opted to follow the lead of ideologically committed House liberals.
While so much of the hoopla over Milbank's column focuses on personalities -- like Darth Vader, Emanuel has earned his enemies -- I think it all masks a more profound ideological insecurity, indeed a political identity crisis.
America is, quite simply, a center-right country. Many have cited polling data showing that self-described conservatives outnumber liberals 2 to 1. But that's not nearly so telling as the fact that self-identified conservatives have outnumbered liberals in every year since 1968; when combined with self-proclaimed moderates, the country is enduringly 65 percent to 75 percent moderate-to-conservative.
As president, Bill Clinton initially governed as if he'd won a more left-leaning mandate than the voters intended. Clinton admitted, in a 1995 interview with the then-columnist Ben Wattenberg, that he'd gone astray philosophically. With the help of Machiavellian pollster Dick Morris, Clinton recalibrated to the center and saved his presidency.
No surprise that Emanuel's most politically formative years were spent as a Clinton strategist. Yet Obama has indicated that he never considered the Clinton model appropriate or appealing. He wants to be "transformative" like Ronald Reagan. But such a transformation requires an electorate willing and capable of being transformed. Obama and his acolytes misread the public, thinking voters were as worshipful as they were.
Beyond the disloyalty and all that, the real reason the Milbank column has enraged so many left-wing bloggers and liberal columnists is that Emanuel's understanding of the political landscape puts him in the reality-based community. And that is a community the Obama cult refuses to join.