Jewish World Review Nov. 5, 2010 28 Mar-Cheshvan, 5771
In 2012, Could Dean Beat Obama?
By Roger Simon
Howard Dean took a somewhat different tone on the phone with me the same day. "If Republicans think were going to slow the growth of Medicare and Medicaid and give tax cuts to those making a million dollars a year, we will wrap that around their necks and beat the hell out of them in 2012."
Finding common ground with Republicans vs. strangling and beating the hell out of Republicans. Which one do you think an angry and dispirited Democratic Party might go for?
Both men were thinking about 2012, and Obama's people have long been thinking — grimly — about Howard Dean.
Some of the most influential members of Team Obama do not like or trust Dean and have long feared he would challenge Obama for the presidency if only given an opportunity.
Voters gave him that opportunity Tuesday, when Democrats got "shellacked" — Obama's term — in the House and lost seats in the Senate.
In his news conference, Obama mentioned the first midterm elections that Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton had faced. Both went badly for the incumbent presidents.
"Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton were standing at this podium two years into their presidency getting very similar questions," Obama said.
He did not say what everyone knew: Two years later, both men were re-elected to the presidency. There were many reasons for that, but a critical one often gets overlooked: Neither faced any real challenge within his own party.
Reagan faced perennial candidate Harold Stassen, and Clinton faced political exotic Lyndon LaRouche. But the Clinton White House was extremely worried that Jesse Jackson would run in the primaries. Clinton looked somewhat vulnerable: There was Whitewater, Hillary Clinton's commodities trading, Travelgate, Troopergate and Paula Jones. The labor unions were still furious over NAFTA, and many African-Americans had not forgiven Clinton for his treatment of Lani Guinier, a black woman whose nomination he had withdrawn for assistant attorney general for civil rights.
Team Clinton, especially Harold Ickes and Rahm Emanuel, worked hard, using both carrots and sticks, to keep Jackson out. (For a full account, see my article in the Feb. 24, 1997, New Republic, "Primary care: how Bill sandbagged Jesse.")
While today it looks impossible that anyone would challenge Obama, in politics you have to prepare for the impossible. Russ Feingold (the Wisconsin senator who lost his re-election bid Tuesday) has been mentioned, but denies interest. Michael Bloomberg's name is sure to come up, but the New York mayor has no real base outside the New York press corps.
Howard Dean is different. He has run for president before — albeit briefly — which is not essential but can be very helpful. He is still a hero to many young people for his pioneering use of the Internet as a political tool. Most importantly, he appeals to the liberals for his dramatic challenge to Democrats to stop being wimps and rolling over for George W. Bush.
Dean said in 2003 he represented "the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party," a call that might sound appealing now to liberals who fear Obama will compromise even further with Republicans. And Dean, a doctor, was a champion of the health care public option, which Obama abandoned.
But the big issue is compromise. Obama actually wants to get things done. Which means he has to compromise with Republicans, which means he has to risk angering and losing his liberal base. That makes him vulnerable to attack from the left, which is where Dean now stands.
Could Dean really beat Obama? Probably not. But incumbent presidents forced to fend off real primary challenges get beat up and weakened. (Jimmy Carter, who had to fend off Ted Kennedy in 1980, then lost to Ronald Reagan.)
And Dean has no reason to like the Obama White House. He was denied a Cabinet position he felt he deserved. Republicans got seats in the Obama Cabinet, but the former chairman of the Democratic National Committee did not.
I spoke to Dean Wednesday morning by phone. He said he had foreseen the loss of the House but had kept his mouth shut because he "didn't want to make headlines." But the loss of the House is, he said, "to some extent a referendum on Obama."
Would Dean challenge Obama in 2012? "Nobody is going to beat him (for the nomination) in 2012," Dean said. "All that would do is weaken the president."
But, Dean added, "If you want to reform Washington, you can't have a staff that's all from Washington."
And what's more, he said, "there has to be a fundamental change in the way business is done in Washington. We have to do that if we want independent and even some Republican support."
Team Obama is keeping an eye on Howard Dean. They know a thing or two about impossible campaigns.
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© 2009, Creators Syndicate