An assassin lurking in the shadows, a shark in the water—that’s how Rahm Emanuel is described in the new documentary HouseQuake, which premiered at the E Street Cinema on Wednesday night.
The film—directed by Karen Price, daughter of Representative David Price—offers a behind-the-scenes look at the 2006 campaign and how Emanuel orchestrated one of the country’s most historic congressional elections. Price and her crew followed seven Democratic candidates: Heath Shuler, Tammy Duckworth, Baron Hill, Diane Farrell, Brad Ellsworth, Tim Mahoney, and Jerry McNerney.
In 2006, Democrats picked up 31 seats to seize control of the House, ending the “Republican revolution” that had reigned for 12 years. As President George W. Bush famously remarked, “It was a thumpin’.”
The think tank Third Way and Representative Chris Van Hollen hosted the premiere. Also in the audience were Representatives Price, Jerry McNerney, Baron Hill, and Ed Whitfield, and the Washington Post’s David Broder.
Prior to the screening, Third Way president Jonathan Cowan issued a warning to audience members with delicate sensibilities: “This film is not yet rated. While there is no sex and no violence, Rahm Emanuel is featured prominently.”
The film opens with the appointment of Emanuel as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and a quick summation of everything that made the 2006 midterm elections so important for Democrats: Al Gore’s loss in 2000, John Kerry's loss in 2004, the Iraq War, the detainment of terror suspects at Guantánamo Bay, and a botched response to Hurricane Katrina. Everything was at stake.
“Rahm Emanuel does not like to lose,” says journalist Naftali Bendavid in the film. “He could either be seen as another at the end of a long line of Democratic failures who snatched defeat from the jaws of victory or as the guy who finally brought them to the promised land.”
Democrats needed somebody who would be ruthless. So who better to get their ducks in a row than Emanuel? In the documentary, Bendavid shares one story about Emanuel from 1992, just after President Bill Clinton wrapped up his presidential campaign.
“At the end of that campaign, all the staff members gathered to celebrate the victory. And most of the staff members were just feeling good and giddy, but Emanuel picked up a knife and he started stabbing it into the table and yelling out the names of the people who had opposed Clinton. So he would say, ‘Dead! So-and-so, dead! So-and-so, dead!’ And he just kept on going until he had named all of Clinton’s enemies as he perceived them.”
That same never-say-die attitude would be instrumental in putting Democrats back in power in 2006. “Republicans were scared of Rahm Emanuel,” says Bendavid. “And that really played into the way they ran their campaign.”
But to win, Democrats would need to do two key things. They’d need to become more flexible on social issues such as abortion, gun control, and gay rights. And they’d need to pick nontraditional candidates such as former Washington Redskins quarterback Heath Shuler or Iraq War veteran Tammy Duckworth.
“I didn’t care where a seat came from,” says Emanuel in the film. “It’s not like I had a preference for one geography over another, one ideology over another. I only cared about 15. That was the magic number. There was no sentiment in this. It was pure winning.”
Shuler got calls day and night from Emanuel, Clinton, and probably 40 members of Congress—all urging him to run. He owed it to his country, they all said. “I was recruited by a lot of people all the way to the NFL,” says Shuler in the movie. “Nobody recruits as well as Rahm Emanuel does.”
The screening was followed by a brief panel discussion, moderated by the New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza. The panel featured CNN’s Bill Schneider, former DCCC executive director John Lapp, and director Karen Price.
Said Schneider: “[Price] captured the drama, the intensity, the excitement of the campaign in a way that I’ve rarely seen done, and it was just a marvelous and dramatic recapitulation of an experience for those of us who went through it.”