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Is Rahm Running for Mayor? Not So Fast...

(Click here to see TNR's take on Rahm Emanuel's possible replacements.)

[Guest post by Noam Scheiber:]

With Tuesday’s surprise announcement that Richard Daley won’t seek a seventh term as mayor of Chicago, the early consensus is that Rahm Emanuel will almost certainly cut short his White House career and enter the race. If I were betting, I’d lean that way, too. Rahm has long coveted the job, he hungers to return to the life of the principal (even if he’s currently the most powerful staffer in the world), and it’s not clear what options he’ll have besides mayor. It’s certainly hard to imagine him returning to the House.

Having said that, I’m not at all convinced Rahm’s candidacy is a done deal. Here’s my thinking based on what I knew at the time of the Daley announcement:

First, yes, it was definitely a surprise. As of a few weeks ago, Rahm was actively brainstorming his next move under the premise that Daley was running again. The second (only slightly hazier) premise was that he’d serve as chief of staff until sometime in the middle of next year, as  other outlets have reported. 

So what are the implications of the surprise? I tend to depart from the conventional wisdom here. The instant reaction seems to be that it’s a disadvantage for Rahm, because other potential candidates are already on the ground in Chicago; many of them represent powerful local constituencies. The thinking seems to be that they can gear up more quickly in response to the news.

There’s clearly something to this. But I think the element of surprise could actually help him in the mayor’s race. If everyone is caught flatfooted, as they appear to have been here, then the guy with the best organization holds a big advantage. Most observers believe Rahm will have Daley’s blessing if he runs. (Or put it this way: It’s hard to believe Rahm would run without Daley’s backing.) I assume that means a lot in terms of organizational strength city-wide.

The real problem with the unexpectedness has less to do with Chicago than with Washington. Had Rahm known a few months ago that Daley was retiring, he could have gradually laid the groundwork for a smooth departure. It’s much harder to do that in the narrow window between now and the midterm elections. No matter how strong the rest of the White House team—and there are some hugely talented people there—you don’t just replace the chief of staff without breaking stride. It takes weeks if not months to plan and execute these transitions seamlessly.

A related point: The conventional wisdom is that Rahm has to make a decision in the next two weeks to give himself a fighting chance in Chicago. That may be right. But, again, I think that misses a more important point: He has to make a decision quickly because the White House simply can’t have a distraction of this size hanging over it for weeks with a potential midterm rout looming. That’s the one way to ensure the midterms turn out disastrously.

Finally, several stories have pointed out that the Daley announcement may be manna for Rahm—“an artful way out of Washington” before the inevitable midterm recriminations, as one Chicago strategist told the Post. Again, I disagree. If Democrats take a beating this fall, one of the most high-profile and polarizing chiefs of staff in recent memory is hardly going to escape blame. (And I say that as someone who thinks Rahm’s been right about a lot of things.)

This is yet another reason I’m not so sure he’s running. The thing you have to understand about Rahm is that he’s a bit of a control freak. The last thing he wants is to be held responsible for something (the Democratic showing in November) that he can't influence, which will happen if he leaves prematurely.

Actually, that may be the second-to-last thing Rahm wants. Probably the last thing is to miss the chance to run for a job he’s dreamed of for years—especially after bagging on another dream-job (speaker of the House) to help get Obama’s presidency off the ground. It was noble of him to do that, and so the president and White House will almost certainly support whatever decision he makes. And it’s why I think the odds are still better-than-even that he leaves. Still, with all the aforementioned considerations, that same noble streak probably makes Rahm susceptible to another hard-sell from the president, should he choose to make it.

My guess (and, again, I haven’t talked to anyone close to Rahm since the Daley announcement) is that he’ll spend the next few days feeling out people in Chicago, particularly Daley himself. If Daley is less than unstinting in his support, he’ll probably stay put. (Although Rahm and Daley are known to be close, you do wonder what to make of the fact that Daley didn’t warn him, thereby massively complicating Rahm’s life.) If he gets Daley’s enthusiastic backing, there’s a very good chance he’ll do it. But, even then, I don’t think it’s a sure thing.

Update: The Tribune reports that Daley won't endorse anyone. I'm not entirely sure what that means as a practical matter--perhaps he can stay officially neutral but throw his organizational support behind Rahm. Or perhaps he'd stay out of the first round of voting and support Rahm in the likely runoff (assuming he makes it that far). But, whatever it means, it makes me even more skeptical that Rahm will run.