Rahm Emanuel Ran Away to Join This Circus: Margaret Carlson

Avert your eyes for the moment from the political world’s newest shiny object, the titillating Bob Woodward droplet that the White House is considering the ultimate shakeup, exchanging Vice President Joe Biden for Clinton -- Hillary, that is -- in 2012.

Not to be outdone, Donald Trump raised the prospect that we may once again have him and his hair to kick around. In a television interview yesterday, The Donald got off the first big whopper of the 2012 race for the presidency, saying, “For the first time in my life, I am absolutely thinking about it.” It’s actually the second time -- at least.

Trump’s fantastic thinking is right at home in this year’s midterm election, in which anyone can run, get nominated and explain themselves later, as Delaware Senate Republican nominee Christine O’Donnell did in an ad beginning, “I’m not a witch.”

This election has devolved to a game of Whom-do-you-hate- less, nowhere more so than in Illinois, where the Democrat running for President Barack Obama’s former Senate seat should be well ahead. He isn’t.

The choice is whether to vote for the putative but apologetic truth-twister, Republican U.S. Representative Mark Kirk, or the former banker who allegedly can’t be trusted with money, Democratic state Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias.

Kirk inflated his resume in ways small and large. Trying to establish his credibility on education, he claimed to have established order as a teacher in a church nursery school, a notion challenged by a parent who didn’t recall any male teachers and unbelievable on its face, in that order among 3- year-olds is unattainable.

Overstatement

More seriously, Kirk, an intelligence officer in the U.S. Navy Reserve, claimed military service that was exaggerated or false: he didn’t come under fire flying over Iraq, or command the war room at the Pentagon, win the Navy’s Intelligence Officer of the Year award or participate in Operation Desert Storm.

His apologies and explanations only make matters worse. For instance, the closest award he did win, in 2000, was the obscure Vice Admiral Rufus L. Taylor Navy Reserve Intelligence Award, which was given to his unit by the National Military Intelligence Association. About the stack of claims, Kirk said, “I simply misremembered it wrong,” a brilliant double-negative donation to the lexicon of Washington weasel phrases, which includes “I misspoke” and “mistakes were made.”

Political Stance

Kirk’s fabulist episodes count more because there aren’t stark policy differences between him and Giannoulias. Kirk is no Tea Partier looking to dismantle the Department of Energy, end Social Security or roll back civil-rights laws. A Republican representing a wealthy Democratic-leaning district on Chicago’s North Shore, he moved right to win the primary but not so much that he fell into Lake Michigan.

A supporter of abortion rights, stem-cell research and more federal funding for children’s health insurance, Kirk voted against the stimulus and health-care reform on grounds it would increase the deficit. He’s for extending all of George W. Bush’s tax cuts permanently but would settle for only a two-year extension.

At 34, Democrat Giannoulias is a bit young and a bit underwhelming, achievement-wise. The failure of his family’s bank, which made loans to some people with criminal records, has been shorthanded by some Kirk supporters as “failed mob banker.” His own career as a loan officer has become an issue because he claimed a tax deduction based on working at the bank after 2005, when he claimed to have left it.

Image Issue

Presiding over the Illinois treasury during a time of troubles for the state’s college-savings program hasn’t helped his self-portrait as a financial wizard.

The gossip columns have been no friend to either candidate.

The Alexi-is-sexy meme, fueled by pictures of Giannoulias with a comely public-relations executive on his arm, only serve to paint him as callow as a featured player on “The Bachelor.”

Kirk’s ex-wife, Kimberly Vertolli, told Chicago Magazine that he is overly controlled by a “Svengali figure,” consultant Dodie McCracken, who pushed him to the right on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and on extending unemployment benefits. Kirk swiftly enlisted his chatty ex-wife as an adviser to his campaign.

Although Democrats enjoy a 10-point lead in party registration in Illinois, their brand has suffered grievously.

First came the appointment of Roland Burris to the very seat Giannoulias is running for. Burris, you’ll recall, left space on his pre-built mausoleum for the title “Senator” and claimed his elevation was “ordained” by God.

Man of Conviction

He was tainted by the revelation that it was ordained instead by the Elvis-impersonating former governor, Rod Blagojevich, who was caught on profanity-laced tapes saying of the Obama’s open seat, “I’m just not giving it up for” nothing. (Expletive deleted.)

The Blago mess hasn’t gone away with his conviction on one count of lying to federal investigators. Prosecutors hoping to send him to the slammer for more than five years will get another chance when they retry the former governor on 23 charges, including that he sought to sell Obama’s seat.

If that spectacle isn’t enough to muddy the Democratic brand, onto Giannoulias’s stage jets former ballet dancer, current yoga devotee, former investment banker and Washington insider Rahm Emanuel to run for mayor in a brutal primary in the City of Broad Shoulders and Lunch Pails. Sucking up much of Chicago’s political oxygen, Emanuel’s presence took a two-ring circus and turned it into three.

(Margaret Carlson, author of “Anyone Can Grow Up: How George Bush and I Made It to the White House” and former White House correspondent for Time magazine, is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)

To contact the writer of this column: Margaret Carlson in Washington at mcarlson3@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this column: James Greiff at jgreiff@bloomberg.net

Bloomberg reserves the right to edit or remove comments but is under no obligation to do so, or to explain individual moderation decisions.

Please enable JavaScript to view the comments powered by Disqus.