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.
Clinton's next major political goal is both crystal clear and highly attainable: to win re-election for a second Senate term in 2006 by an overwhelming margin. Right now, with the Republican Party in New York state in stunning disarray even by its own abrasive standards, that looks like a slam dunk.
Once that happens Clinton will have fulfilled her pledge during her 2000 election campaign to serve the people of New York through a full Senate term. She has been doing that highly effectively. And historically, many of the most successful presidential candidates and effective chief executives in U.S. history have decisively confirmed their standing on the national stage, not just by winning a governorship or a Senate seat, but by then getting re-elected by a decisive margin.
That was the case for Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan, who both won two elections as governors of New York in 1928 and 1930 and California in 1966 and 1970. It was also true of current President George W. Bush, whose triumphant re-election for a second term as governor of Texas propelled him into prime position to win the GOP's 2000 presidential nomination.
But will Clinton run in 2008 as a Third Way centrist like her husband, or as a more polarizing, radical figure? That will depend on how the party does in 2006. For the midterm congressional elections will then bear Dean's mark as DNC chairman. And it is already clear that he is determined to emulate then-House Minority Whip Newt Gingrich of Georgia before the 1994 congressional elections by moving his party back to its grass roots and traditional values and by running a coordinated national campaign to reclaim a majority in the House of Representatives for the first time in 12 years.
That ambition may be less of a pipedream than it appears. If President Bush's fiscal policies work reasonably well and the U.S. economy remains even in its current condition without any further significant upturn, Dean and the Dems don't have a prayer, whatever they try: The GOP superiority in organization, discipline, funding and media penetration will yet again carry all before it.
But if Iraq gets significantly worse, if a wider conflict, perhaps with Iran, erupts in the Middle East, and, most important of all, if the soaring federal deficit triggers a precipitous collapse of the dollar and flight of international central banks out of U.S. Treasury bonds, then having a focused, angry aggressive message is exactly what the Democrats will need in the campaign of 2006.
It has not always been the case that when the party in power loses control of Congress in a midterm election that they have been kicked out of the presidency right afterwards. Harry S. Truman in 1948 and Bill Clinton in 1996 were both comeback kids who defied that easy prognostication.
But more often than not, it has indeed been the case that when a party in power loses control of the House in a midterm election, a devastating defeat in the next presidential race is coming two years later. That happened to Republicans in 1930 before FDR routed them in 1932 and to the Democrats when their 1950 congressional disaster was followed by Dwight D. Eisenhower's vast sweep in 1952.
Conversely, when Bush and the GOP routed conventional expectations by increasing their House and Senate majorities in the 2002 midterm elections, the way was prepared for their confident, smooth-running and decisive re-election campaign last November.
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.
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