Dean-Clinton Rift Could Impact '08 Race

By Fred Lucas | July 7, 2008 | 8:32 PM EDT

( - Well before it was clear that Democrats would regain both houses of Congress in 2006, the heads of two key bodies within the party were at odds over spending priorities, a rift some analysts believe may play a role in the 2008 race if Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) emerges as the candidate.

In the run-up to the November election, Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean and then head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Rep. Rahm Emanuel butted heads.

Emanuel, a former advisor to President Bill Clinton, complained about the DNC to then House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, telling her in a phone conversation, "They're not phone banking, they're not doing anything ? They've burned cash. ? They couldn't find their a-- with both hands tied behind their back."

The conversation is recounted in Naftali Bendavid's book on the 2006 election, "The Thumpin," which also says that Sen. Clinton instigated Emanuel's criticism of the DNC chairman.

"This is part of a larger picture. Howard Dean and his faction have had conflicts with the Clinton faction for a long time, going back to 2004," Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, said in an interview.

"We can reasonably assume that if Hillary Clinton is the nominee, then Howard Dean will not be party chairman for very long," Sabato added.

The rift between the Dean and Clinton factions is apparent to Democrats, but they are uncertain whether the divide and occasional jabs from both sides will affect the 2008 presidential race.

After the Democrats swept the House and Senate in November, close Clinton confidant James Carville advocated ousting Dean as chairman, but his advice wasn't followed, and Dean still holds the position six months later.

If Clinton becomes the party nominee, she will have the full support of Dean's DNC, according to Jim Dean, Howard Dean's brother and chairman of the liberal group Democracy for America.

"I expect them to be on the same page [during the presidential campaign]," Jim Dean told Cybercast News Service. "There is no personal animosity that I'm aware of."

Clinton and Dean represent distinct factions in the party. As president, Bill Clinton - a leader in the moderate Democratic Leadership Council - pushed the party to the center, advocating free trade and welfare reform.

Howard Dean, during his 2004 campaign, claimed to "represent the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party." He opposed the Iraq war and wanted to move the party back to its liberal roots. This appealed to activists and bloggers who collectively became know as the "net roots."

But in Jim Dean's view, the divisions have less to do with political philosophy and more to do with the growing influence of the net roots in the Democratic Party when compared to the Clintonesque culture of consultants and focus groups.

Speaking after the election at a Wyoming gathering of the Association of State Democratic Chairs, the DNC chairman shot back at critics, saying 2006 was "a great win for what I call the new Democratic Party. This is the new Democratic Party. The old Democratic Party is back in Washington. Sometimes they still complain a little bit."

Dean's 2004 presidential campaign was going nowhere before the net roots kicked in, bringing heavy sums of money into the race, Sabato said. That's a stark contrast to Clinton's 2008 campaign, which has perhaps the highest number of high-priced political consultants and focus groups, he added.

"The least favorite 2008 candidate among the net roots is Hillary Clinton, who is seen as the establishment candidate, the choice of the usual beltway consultants who run most of the Democratic campaigns," Sabato said.

Another former adviser to President Clinton, Harold Ickes, is now working as a volunteer on the Clinton 2008 campaign. He established a company called Catalist to build a national voter database, reportedly because he has no faith that the DNC can rival the GOP's voter database.

The rift between Dean and Clinton forces would definitely have ramifications for the 2008 presidential race, said James Maloney, a former Democratic House member from Connecticut. At the same time, he does not anticipate a party split.

"In internal fights existing factions are shaken loose and it puts some players into free agency," Maloney said. "[Sen. Barack] Obama could be the third team. You have the Dean team and Clinton team. Obama might appeal to anti-war Democrats that are not comfortable with Dean."

A key battle line in the last year was Dean's effort to finance Democratic campaigns even in predominantly Republican states. This long-term strategy didn't suit Emanuel, whose job was strictly to get Democrats elected to the House in 2006.

"An old saying in politics is that where you stand depends on where you sit," said Maloney. "Rahm Emanuel's priority was a Democratic majority in the House of Representatives."

Jim Dean believes his brother's strategy has been, and will continue to be, vindicated, adding that it would be foolish to drop the Dean 50-state strategy.

"The party and candidates that realize the center of the universe is outside Washington, D.C., that is the party and the candidate that will win," he predicted. "You can't televise a victory. If we can't get candidates on the ground to ask voters to consider their choices, we've already lost."

The rift continued even after the success in the November.

"Usually after a great election victory, there is a celebration," Bendavid told Cybercast News Service.

"[But] within hours and days the Democrats were blaming each other for not winning more seats. James Carville said that if Dean had spent more money the Democrats would have had more seats. Dean's people said that Rahm Emanuel didn't pick the right candidates to win more seats," Bendavid added.

But the differences are not irreconcilable, said Bendavid, who is a political reporter with the Chicago Tribune.

"There is a rivalry between the Dean camp and his supporters, and the Clintons, the Democratic Leadership Council, and their supporters," Bendavid said. "That doesn't mean Dean doesn't like the Clintons."

The next party nominee will call the shots at the DNC, and whoever it is will be unlikely to seek any shake-ups such as firing Dean, said Terry Michael, a one-time DNC press secretary.

"Clinton is naturally antithetical to Dean," Michael told Cybercast News Service. "But I don't see a reason to offend that part of the party for a few months. Dean is the first party chairman with his own political base."

Cybercast News Service Correspondent Matt Purple contributed to this report.

digg_skin = 'compact'

Make media inquiries or request an interview with Fred Lucas.

Subscribe to the free daily E-brief.

E-mail a comment or news tip to Fred Lucas.

Send a Letter to the Editor about this article.