Many people have been discussing the influence of Bill and Hillary Clinton on the Wesley Clark campaign. Here is the view from insiders in the Democratic Party:
1. The Clintons are heavily supporting Wesley Clark in exchange for Clark choosing Hillary Clinton as the vice presidential candidate on Clark’s ticket. Why is this good for Hillary? Assuming Clark/Clinton win the nomination, and assuming Clark/Clinton also win the election, Hillary as vice president is in good position to run for president in 2008 or 2012. In the meantime, both Clintons enjoy influencing policy, from her perch as VP, in the administration of a political neophite who is expected to be receptive to their advice. Assuming Clark/Clinton win the nomination and lose the election, Hillary Clinton becomes the presumptive presidential candidate for 2008.
2. The Clintons support Clark because they hope he can stop Howard Dean. Dean is the only real outsider in the campaign, and the only one who will attempt to reform the party if he wins the nomination. Read “reform the party” as reducing the influence of big traditional party donors and money people, including Clinton-sponsored DNC Chair Terry McAuliff, as well as the Clintons themselves. Contrary to perceptions, the Democratic party prior to campaign finance reform was not a party of grass-roots activism, but was actually more dependent on big donors than the Republicans. Dean’s grassroots fundraising, with support of MoveOn and others, is broadening political participation but is also eroding the power of the money men of the party, such as McAuliff.
Why is the Clintons’ role in the Clark campaign a problem for those of us who support reform of the Democratic Party? Insiders I have talked to believe the Clintons are putting their own ambitions above the well-being of the party. As a former president, Bill Clinton should be encouraging every viable candidate, and promoting the interests of the party. Bill Clinton knows that the 2002 election was a strategic nightmare, with the party lacking a compelling message. No progress has been made by the party on matching the electronic and strategic infrastructure enjoyed by Republicans. Other than Dean, the candidates are lackluster.
By seeking to trip up Howard Dean, Bill Clinton is discouraging the new, hopeful and exciting developments in the party. Dean has a powerful message, a sophisticated Internet infrastructure, and charisma. Dean is the only candidate who has been generating any real enthusiasm for the primary process, and the only one who has been bringing in large numbers of new people. Dean has almost single handedly helped voters and the party see that George Bush is beatable, but only by a candidate who has a distinctive, compelling vision for the future of the country.
Dean is a centrist governor in the tradition of the orginal Clinton campaign, yet he is being tarred as too liberal to be elected. This is patently untrue. What makes Dean threatening to the party elite is that he IS electable–and that he owes the elite little or nothing. If Bill Clinton cared about the party, Bill would be enthusiastic about Howard Dean. But Bill Clinton can’t control Howard Dean, and so it seems that Bill is putting up Clark as a spoiler.
Chris Lydon has written a favorable blog about Clark today, but I treasure something Chris said to me last week, “Presidential nomination politics is gang warfare. A bunch of guys get together and say, ‘hey, do you want to take the hill? Let’s do it! How about you be the candidate and I be the money man?”
Clark may be a great guy, but in politics it helps to know who owns the candidate.