Will Hillary's "Dream" Get Left Behind?

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Senator Hillary Clinton talks about the American Dream Initiative at the Democratic Leadership Council's "National Conversation" in Denver, Monday

Hillary Rodham Clinton is not at her best when she is being compared to her husband. So you have to wonder why she invites it. Monday found her in Denver at the annual meeting of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, unveiling what the DLC calls "The American Dream Initiative." It is a project that she has led for a year, and that could help form an agenda for her own bid for the White House — if, that is, she decides to run.

The initiative, summarized in a 20-page booklet, is a collection of proposals aimed squarely at the middle class, offering relief in the areas that Americans say are their greatest domestic concerns: education, home ownership, health care, retirement security. They are variations on many of the programs that were hallmarks of Bill Clinton's presidency. But if there was a chance that any of it would sound fresh, that died the moment Hillary Clinton announced: "It's the American dream, stupid." Maybe that's why the speech, even with this audience, got little more than dutiful applause.

In the 1980s the Democratic Leadership Council, organized as an affront to party orthodoxy, played an influential role in steering it away from shopworn liberalism and toward a more muscular foreign policy. The group also incubated a new generation of Democratic leaders, most famously a little-known Governor of Arkansas who became the only Democratic President since FDR to be re-elected. But these days, the DLC more often finds itself the target of attacks from those who believe the energy of the party — and its future — are on the left. Much of that anger is directed at the kind of centrism that has been the hallmark of the DLC.

That's why, even as the DLC was laying out its agenda in Denver, the real test of the party's direction has been playing out more than 1,600 miles away in Waterbury, Connecticut. There, Bill Clinton was campaigning to help Senator Joe Lieberman — who, like Hillary Clinton, voted in favor of the Iraq invasion — hold onto his job against anti-war challenger Ned Lamont. (Both Clintons have said that they will ultimately support the winner of the primary.)

DLC Senior Fellow Marshall Wittmann, who was wearing a Lieberman pin attached to his DLC name tag at the Denver meeting, warned that if Lieberman — the Democrats' 2000 vice presidential nominee — falls victim to the party's angry, netroots-driven forces, "it will likely have the result of driving the Democratic presidential primaries to the left in 2008." In that case, he and others worry, the kind of middle-class-oriented ideas that were being offered by the DLC as its "American Dream Initiative" would likely get lost in the larger political currents. "The question is," he says, "will the activist base allow the nominee to reach out to the center with these ideas, or else be consumed by their opposition to the war?"

That's something the centrists in the party fear more than anything else. Especially the ones named Clinton.