It's Friday, June 26, 2020, the day of the week when I reprise a quotation intended to be instructive or inspirational. Today's, which comes from Rahm Emanuel, is both. I first met Rahm, as most people call him, when he was a young presidential aide in Bill Clinton's White House. He went on to become an influential member of the House of Representatives, chief of staff for President Obama, and mayor of Chicago. This morning's quotation dates to the presidential transition of November 2008, and a thought he expressed about the most effective way to handle a national crisis.
During the presidential election year of 1984, Michael Kinsley, a syndicated columnist and New Republic magazine editor, coined an axiom that would prove to be enduring: "A ‘gaffe' is when a politician tells the truth."
For the past dozen years, Republicans have dined out on a supposed Rahm Emanuel gaffe -- the one in which he voiced the idea that a crisis should never "go to waste." In his critics' telling, Rahm was explaining how when things go bad, a political party should opportunistically take advantage of the moment by enacting its ideological wish list unrelated to the crisis at hand. This notion was back in the news this spring as the Democrats' left wing began pushing dubious policy proposals in response to the coronavirus pandemic and ensuing lockdown that cratered the economy.
"PATHETIC: Democrats are using Rahm Emanuel's playbook of never letting a crisis go to waste," tweeted Marc Lotter, the director of strategic communications for President Trump's reelection campaign. "Their demands have NOTHING TO DO with helping the American people - this is about fulfilling their liberal wish list/Green New Deal."
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell slammed Democrats for trying to take advantage of the moment to extract concessions from airlines over the industry's "carbon footprint," as the U.S. economy hangs in the balance. "They ought to be embarrassed," McConnell said. "This is no time for this nonsense."
Sen. Ted Cruz joined in the fun, explicitly accusing Senate Democrats of using Rahm's playbook. "The same quote from Rahm Emanuel…‘Never let a good crisis go to waste.' Sadly, we're seeing the embodiment of that cynical approach right now," Cruz said. "What the hell do the emissions standards on airplanes have to do with thousands of people dying and millions of people out of work in the coronavirus epidemic?" he added.
I'd make two observations about this. First, Emanuel didn't originally say "good crisis," he said "serious crisis." Is that distinction important? I think so. The first has a cynical veneer to it. The second is more solemn.
More importantly, in Emanuel's initial formulation, he wasn't referring to a wish list of ideological ideas. He was talking about creative -- and bipartisan -- problem-solving that necessarily entailed ideas from across the spectrum. He was specific about this point, too, as he recently explained in a Washington Post op-ed. Unfortunately, in that column, Emanuel revealed that he'd internalized his critics' mistake. "The United States was careening toward a global depression when President Barack Obama named me his first chief of staff, and in those dark days, I uttered a phrase that's followed me ever since: ‘Never allow a good crisis go to waste. It's an opportunity to do the things you once thought were impossible.'
He got the second part right, and it's hardly a sentiment anyone should apologize for. What Emanuel said on Nov. 19, 2008, amid a threat to the global financial system, was actually quite aspirational:
"You never want a serious crisis to go to waste. And what I mean by that is an opportunity to do things that you think you could not do before. I think America as a whole in 1973 and 1974 -- and not just my view but obviously the administration's -- missed the opportunity to deal with the energy crisis that was before us. For a long time, our entire energy policy came down to cheap oil.
"This is an opportunity, what used to be long-term problems, be they in the health care area, energy area, education area, fiscal area, tax area, regulatory reform area, things that we have postponed for too long, that were long-term, are now immediate and must be dealt with. This crisis provides the opportunity, for us, as I would say, the opportunity to do things that you could not do before. The good news, I suppose, if you want to see a silver lining, is the problems are big enough that they lend themselves to ideas from both parties for the solution."
And that's our quote of the week.
Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.