I like this thoughtful, long expose by Marty Sieff on what Dean’s takeover of the Democratic Party helm means for Hillary Clinton’s political life.
I’m much more of a believer in Dean than most of my friends on both sides of the aisle (and even those in the middle). Dean was never as liberal as the media and his party brethren (and Karl Rove) made him out to be. I am overdue with some of my own punditry on this subject — but my friend Mark Goldberg defends Dean here amidst a chorus of other American Prospect voices less enthusiastic about DNC Chairman Dean.
The interesting thing Marty Sieff does is to begin to look at what Dean’s possible political course means to other leading Democrats. Maybe others have written with greater complexity about Dean’s next role, but I haven’t seen much of it.
Howard Dean’s capture of the Democratic National Committee chair is not the devastating setback for Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., that many have assumed. On the contrary, it is likely to play dramatically into her hands if she chooses to seek the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination.
The conventional wisdom claims that the Clintons opposed Dean’s 2004 campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination because they did not want to deliver the party to its more radical, combative elements. It was certainly the case that low-key, quietly ambitious Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, a longtime close political ally of former President Bill Clinton, played the role of a Midwest Iago in helping Dean’s self-destructing campaign skewer itself in his state’s fateful caucuses a year ago. And it is also true that Sen. Clinton has resolutely taken middle-of-the-road positions among Senate Democrats in contrast to the fiery grassroots activism urged by Dean.
But it is still a full four years until the next presidential election, and for the next two of them Dean’s and Clinton’s political career tracks are going to be very different and look unlikely to conflict. After November 2006 they may even come together surprisingly effectively.
On Hillary and Howard’s endgame, Martin Sieff concludes Hillary can’t lose no matter how Howard performs:
For Clinton, therefore, having Dean radicalize the Democratic Party now poses no threat to her at all. Whether he succeeds or fails, she is looking at re-election in a walk for her second Senate term.
But the overall results of the 2006 race will set the Democratic agenda and shape the party’s grand strategy for 2008. If Deanism, as widely expected, is tried and fails, then Clinton will run in 2008 as the restorer of Democratic centrism, the Queen of the revived Third Way.
But if the country should be plunged into crisis by 2006 and Dean’s hard-charging approach restores the party to a power and credibility on Capitol Hill it has not known for 12 years, then Clinton, like another pragmatic and charismatic New York senator 40 years before, will move to the left and reposition herself with the anti-war left.
But unlike Sen. Robert Kennedy in 1968, she will not have to play an indecisive Hamlet before entering the presidential fray. The results of the 2006 congressional elections will clearly show her which of those two roads, the centrist or the grassroots neo-populist, is the better for her.
Far from standing in the way of Clinton’s presidential ambitions, therefore, Dean, whether he likes it or not, appears fated to prepare the way for them.
His clear vision for the Democratic Party may fizzle and fail, in which case he will be remembered as another perennial loser like William Jennings Bryan or Adlai Stevenson, both charismatic campaigners who kept their party out of power in one presidential election after another.
Or he may succeed brilliantly, and thereby establish himself as the prophetic precursor of a dramatic new era in U.S. political life. Either way, Clinton stands to reap the benefit.
I think Sieff’s prognostications are sound, and interesting.
I should add, in the spirit of full disclosure, that my great friend and colleague at the New America Foundation, Laurie Rubiner, is starting this very day as Hillary Clinton’s new legislative director. Rubiner ran New America’s Universal Health Care Program and previously worked for the late Senator John Chafee.
She has an amazing mind — and is shrewd in all the good ways, and focused. Clinton just managed to hire for herself one of the town’s biggest policy guns who sits smack dab in this town’s radical center. It will be interesting to see if Hillary knows it.
Good luck Laurie.
— Steve Clemons