As for Obama’s Chicago-based hit men, well, they don’t come out of Chicago-style politics either. David Axelrod was a quintessential Hyde Park independent, a University of Chicago student and disciple of the reform guru Don Rose. Axelrod cut his teeth denouncing what was left of Chicago-style politics as a Chicago Tribune political reporter in the early 1980s before quitting journalism to help elect the notoriously honorable downstate politician Paul Simon to the Senate in 1984. That was the first campaign Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel worked on as well. Rahm was too young to have much to do with the Daley machine. As for the others, David Plouffe is from Delaware. Jim Messina is from Montana. They are in Chicago, but not of it.
Some Republicans seem to think Chicago politics is about brutal, slashing attacks on opponents—Al Capone with an ad budget. That’s what John Boehner was complaining about when he used the phrase in 2009 to describe the way the Obama administration was demonizing opponents of his health care bill, like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. But political aggression is hardly a distinctive Chicago trait. While American politics has never wanted for harsh negativity, the Chicago machine era predates media campaigns driven by sound bites and attack ads. The best modern exemplar of hardball politics is probably the late South Carolina political consultant Lee Atwater, who ran George H.W. Bush’s ugly 1988 presidential campaign.
If they aren’t referring to machine politics, maybe Mitt’s boys are trying to say something else? In a recent call with reporters, Romney adviser Ed Gillespie described Chicago politics as simple cronyism, with contracts and rewards going to Obama’s largest fundraisers. But Chicago-style politics was never much about big donors either. The machine was funded through involuntary contributions. City workers had to kick back a portion of their salaries to fund the political operation. For an example of a politician notorious for rewarding major campaign contributors, look to Richard Nixon, the first president to put a price on ambassadorships ($250,000), and his relationship with the likes of Walter Annenberg.
Of course, Romney isn’t interested in this kind of nuance. “Chicago-style politics” is mainly just a way for him to call Obama corrupt without coming out and saying so. Speaking for the campaign, former White House Chief of Staff John Sununu told Fox News, “This is a president who wallowed in Chicago—in the murky soup of politics slash felons.” Sununu, of course, swims in the clear broth of integrity slash ethics. But here too, the Romney line seems a little out of date. While Chicago aldermen have kept up their love affair with petty crime, Illinois state politics has become much sleazier, with half of the last eight governors moving from the state house to the big house. For a politician like Rod Blagojevich, it’s Springfield—away from the scrutiny of the Chicago media—that affords the real opportunity for corruption.
Somehow, “Illinois-style politics” doesn’t have quite the same ring.