Wayne M. O'Leary

Howard and Hillary

They're the odd couple of the Democratic Party, the political version of Oscar Madison and Felix Unger, and their simultaneous rise to prominence speaks volumes about the current schizophrenic state of the Democrats.

I'm referring, of course, to Howard Dean, wunderkind of last year's presidential campaign and newly installed chairman of the Democratic National Committee, and Hillary Rodham Clinton, New York's junior senator and presumptive candidate for president in 2008. The town (Washington) may turn out to be too small for both of them.

Dean is the ultimate provocateur, the fastest lip in the East, and Democrats presumably knew that when they tapped him for DNC head. Among his notably controversial comments of recent weeks were assertions that the GOP is a party made up mostly of "white Christians" (true; the description applies to 84% of Republicans versus just 57% of Democrats), that many Republicans have never had to earn an honest living (true; the GOP's affluent leadership and activist base relies much more on unearned income from investments than does its opposite number), and that House Majority Leader Tom DeLay should hustle himself back to Texas and serve his richly deserved jail time for political corruption (probably apropos, but premature in that no actual trial -- or even an indictment -- has yet taken place).

Needless to say, the national media jumped all over the Vermont ex-governor, labeling him an irresponsible loose cannon -- or worse. This was the same national media that for a dozen years prior found nothing critical to say when Republicans of the Gingrich-DeLay stripe made statements far more reckless and inflammatory.

It's a double standard the Fourth Estate needs to be called on, and Dean has done it in the specific case of Fox News; he's not backing down. The same can't be said for the Democratic congressional establishment. The party's oh-my-God capital chorus line, led by Sen. Joe Biden, couldn't wait to condemn Dean, but then, they're part of the problem.

Although the party establishment doesn't like it, Dean is the proven antidote to the vapid, uninspired centrism that has dominated Democratic politics for a generation. As late as 2004, John Kerry ran for president essentially as a nonideological foreign-policy patriot. His running mate, John Edwards, was supposed to supply the progressive fire and brimstone on domestic issues, but the campaign banished him to Dick Cheney's cave and he was never heard from again.

In 2008, the centrist oracles, defeated but unrepentant, appear to want an overtly Christian candidate with red-state appeal. A Republican-lite strategy didn't work last time, but the Democratic Leadership Council types and their big-money backers don't discourage easily; they think they see victory in finding an anti-Dean.

Enter Hillary, the party's 800-pound gorilla (if polls are to be believed), who will try to fit the DLC's bill without totally alienating the party's more populist base. Her rightward positioning has already begun, manifesting itself in firm support for the Iraq war, in an edging away from social causes like abortion, in an uptick in antipermissiveness rhetoric and, most especially, in regular paeans to traditional religious faith and red-state morality. Signs are abundant that Hillary will run on a centrist platform borrowed from her husband's years of triangulation. The strategy will involve keeping DNC Chairman Dean at extreme arm's length.

Sen. Clinton starts with obvious advantages: name recognition, a high-profile elective position (something John Edwards conspicuously lacks) and an odd nostalgia for the White House years of the 1990s. She already has two Democratic constituency groups nearly sewn up: activist women, eager for a female president regardless of ideology, and African Americans, who have forgotten Bill Clinton's political sins (welfare reform, for example, which hit them disproportionately hard), but cherish the memory of his easy identification with black culture. Mostly, however, Hillary benefits from the political myth of the 1990s, the perception that the Clintons presided over unparalleled good times and can somehow bring them back.

The myth is just that -- a myth. The rising stock market of the Clinton years, the basis of the myth, was premised on the speculative dot-com boom that turned into a bubble and burst soon after Bill and Hillary departed Washington. The jobs created in its wake were insecure low-pay/low-benefit jobs produced as a byproduct of the economic creative destruction of the '90s that consumed the manufacturing sector, helped along by the free-trading, proglobalization policies of a Clinton administration bent on cooperating with a laissez-faire Republican Congress.

In actuality, Democrats and their constituencies gained little from the Clinton era and lost a lot. The party surrendered Congress and descended into minority status. National health insurance, Hillary's initial claim to fame, was botched and set back for years. Labor unions continued their slide, accompanied by little weeping from the White House. Reactionary economic policies were given a bipartisan sheen and the stamp of respectability. And any post-election momentum acquired by Democrats after 1996 was squandered by a wholly avoidable impeachment crisis.

On the other hand, the Clintons survived and prospered, Hillary moving to the Senate to lay the groundwork for the restoration and Bill hitting the lecture circuit, earning big money and hobnobbing with Republican presidents. It's a depressing tale and one that suggests a certain inevitability: The Clintons will always be with us, and the soap opera will never end.

Dick Morris (the pollster and strategist who originally was Hillary's choice) will be succeeded by some other guru of triangulation. The long-awaited liberal revival will be once more postponed or stunted in its growth. Politics will continue to be bereft of meaning and concerned with empty gestures, symbolic incrementalism and accommodation.

But there, blocking the way, is Sir Howard, mounted on his white charger, ready to do battle for truth, justice and the progressive vision. The Clintons will have to take him into account, because he possesses the one thing they don't have: the liberal idealism that defines their party.

Dean won't run again, but he will have a say in who does; he will set the tone and select the terrain. The Clintons, said to have vehemently opposed his selection as interim party leader, will view him as an inconvenient bump on the road to their entitlement, but he could become a cavernous pothole.

The Howard and Hillary show will be fun to watch.

Wayne O'Leary is a writer in Orono, Maine.

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