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Politics is a blood sport — especially in congressional politics where winner takes all and reserves the right to control the agenda. For the Democrats to take back the House in 2006, they first had to clean house at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and devise an entirely new campaign strategy. Enter Rahm Emanuel. The Thumpin’: How Rahm Emanuel and the Democrats Learned to be Ruthless and Ended the Republican Revolution by Naftali Bendavid chronicles the Democrats’ takedown of the Republican congressional majority through the role of the chief strategist of that victory, Rahm Emanuel. A native Chicagoan who was a top adviser in the Clinton administration, Emanuel is known inside the Beltway as a vigorous fund-raiser and a ruthless political assassin, unapologetic in his desire to win. This is a guy who once sent a dead fish to a pollster who irked him. Bendavid, deputy Washington bureau chief for the Chicago Tribune (and a former Legal Times reporter), spent a year and a half shadowing Emanuel for The Thumpin’. Bendavid weaves this central thesis — Emanuel’s unrelenting need to win — through the “nitty-gritty of daily politicking” along the way to victory. Despite knowing from the onset Emanuel gets his happily-ever-after ending, the narrative retains the nail-biting tension that permeates the pressure-cooker atmosphere of the campaign trail. Part of the tension stems from Emanuel’s own surprise at victory. From the beginning, he warned against unrealistic expectations. Emanuel began the 2006 cycle tired of Republicans representing districts that polled solidly Democratic. He set out to reverse that trend with fierce tenacity, deeming no tactic too harsh. Winning back the House did not come close to Emanuel’s grasp until after months of recruiting candidates and aggressively fund-raising to build the Democrats’ financial war chest. The recruitment of 50 credible challengers in the 232 Republican-held House districts was critical. The criterion for candidates was simple: They must be able to win. Everything else, including ideology, was not important. Bendavid is careful to note that larger factors such as the Hurricane Katrina debacle, widespread Republican corruption, and Tom DeLay’s resignation affected the election, but in general he glosses over their significance, fitting them into a somewhat strained narrative about Emanuel the conquering hero. Emanuel wanted to eliminate the Republican criticism of Democrats as soft. Some of his favorite candidates were macho Democrats, particularly law-enforcement types and veterans. The liberal wing and blogosphere did not agree with Emanuel’s choices and, like liberal blogger David Sirota, felt that real toughness would be “confronting the Republicans forcefully on Iraq, health care, union organizing.” Much like Emanuel, The Thumpin’ can be accused of focusing more on winning than on ideology. Bendavid’s book might have been stronger if he had more thoroughly examined the role of ideology, questioning some of Emanuel’s candidate choices, his rationale behind determining how those choices were winnable candidates, and the potential long-term implications of a Democratic Party without an ideological core. However, Bendavid does an excellent job of illustrating how those conflicts played out between their chief advocates: Emanuel and Democratic Party Chairman Howard Dean. In one of the most interesting sections of The Thumpin’, Bendavid recounts the two men’s clashes both in the media and behind closed doors throughout 2006. Emanuel fervently opposed Dean’s 50-state strategy of placing DNC field staff and cash in every state rather than stockpiling funds to be used in a handful of targeted contests. Expletives and insults were hurled as they struggled with the importance of the long-term goal of nationwide party strength and the short-term goal of winning the House in 2006. Emanuel is notorious, in fact, for his cursing, screaming, and browbeating. But Bendavid goes beyond this image and captures the important role of Emanuel’s subtler nuances and pointed silences, especially late in the campaign as “Tom DeLay’s House of scandal” was crumbling around him. But at the same time, Bendavid had to immerse himself in Emanuel’s vernacular. At a roast of Emanuel in September 2005, Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) observed that when Emanuel lost half of his middle finger in a high school accident, “this rendered him practically mute.” The Thumpin’ is at its best when it’s recounting the complex relationships between Emanuel and fellow Democrats. Emanuel didn’t hesitate to name names of those who failed to contribute their membership dues to the DCCC and even resorted to taking away privileges until they paid up. This bred resentment with many Democrats, especially the powerful Congressional Black Caucus, which felt Emanuel was not sensitive enough to diversity issues and the challenges of raising money in poorer districts. Emanuel also sparred with the Congressional Black Caucus over Rep. William Jefferson (D-La.), who was being investigated by the FBI on bribery charges and was interfering with Emanuel’s attempts to paint the GOP as the party of corruption. The Thumpin’ is tightly written and offers excellent insider tidbits, and provides a primer in the tactical style of Rahm Emanuel, positioned to be a leader of the Democratic Party for years to come.
E. Annie Hall is the direct marketing manager for the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington, D.C. She was a fund-raising assistant in Omaha, Neb., on the 2000 Senate campaign of Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.).

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