IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

If Hillary can't win, then who?

We are in the earliest, weirdly neurotic and theoretical phase of the ’08 race, when insiders  in both political parties try to assess whether the putative, on-paper frontrunners really can do the job.  By Howard Fineman.
Christopher J. Dodd
Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, D-Conn., has thrown his hat into a crowded ring of presidential hopefuls. Bob Child / AP file

WASHINGTON – Maybe Sen. Chris Dodd of Connecticut has no chance to win the presidency. Or maybe he does. In any case, the mere fact that he called me the other day to remind me that he is running tells me something: that most of the Democratic parties savviest veterans — elected officials in their Capitol Hill suites, Hollywood machers tooling along the Santa Monica Freeway in their Priuses, the New York soft money crowd eating their egg-white omelets at the Regency in Manhattan — are convinced that Hillary Can’t Win.

We are in the earliest, weirdly neurotic and theoretical phase of the ’08 race, when insiders (and would-be candidates) in both political parties try to assess whether the putative, on-paper frontrunners really can do the job. But the fever is more intense on the Democratic side.

There are plenty of Republican insiders who don’t like Sen. John McCain for one reason or another, but I don’t hear many say that McCain can’t beat whomever the Dems put up against him.

Among Democrats, however, the opposite equation holds true: no one doubts Hillary Clinton can win the nomination; not many think she can beat the GOP’s candidate, especially if it is McCain.

Among the ardent Democrats I’ve talked with in recent days who insist on this are: a mega-millionaire entrepreneur from Boston, an academic from Harvard, a show-biz big wig from New York, an industrial-union leader from Washington and — though he doesn’t say it in so many words, Dodd.

The buzz factor
When he did a count on May 7, Charlie Cook of the Cook Political Report listed 10 Democrats as possible challengers to Clinton — former vice president Al Gore among them. Dodd makes it 11. He told me that he would spend between now and the end of the year doing the first and most indispensable thing that any would-be contender needs to do: seeing if he can raise money.

In presidential politics there are a series of concentric elections until the final one (in the Supreme Court…). Money comes just after — and in conjunction with — the creation of Buzz.

Can Dodd create any?

Unless you live in Connecticut, or followed the insider mechanics of the 1996 Clinton reelection race (when Dodd served an unhappy year as party chairman) you probably have no idea who he is. Let me tell you, briefly.

At 62, with snowy white hair, Dodd is a lifer in politics and government, an insider’s insider – very highly regarded within the visible and invisible Club of the Senate. He retains a boyish enthusiasm for the old-school arts of bipartisan legislating and serious debate. The guy tends to know what he is talking about.

The Dodd DNA
Politics is a family business. In a way — though he doesn’t say so — Dodd’s career is about redeeming the Dodd family name in that business. His late father was a senator. A world away — in 1967 — Thomas Dodd of Connecticut was censured by the Senate. Three years later he ran as an independent and lost. His son managed the campaign.

Chris Dodd was elected to the House in 1974 — the “post-Watergate” year that swept in dozens of reform-minded Democrats. (Bill Clinton was trying to be one of them down in Arkansas, but didn’t make it.) He was elected to the Senate in 1980.

“Legislative accomplishments” don’t translate well into a presidential run — one reason why senators rarely move on to the White House — but Dodd has more than most. Perhaps the best known is the Family and Medical Leave Act, landmark social legislation of the Clinton years.

Dodd is a mix of unassuming and worldly, the product of the Providence College (a font of prominent Irish Democrats) and the Peace Corps, which took him to the Dominican Republic. He speaks fluent Spanish, is a moderate on defense and pretty much of a social liberal.

There was a time, after a divorce, when Dodd seemed an affable but somewhat lost soul: a man of obvious talent destined for something, but no one was sure quite what. But he remarried a few years ago, and is now the proud dad of two little girls, whose ages he still measures in quarter years and months.

He knows the litany of why he can’t win: he’s  a senator, an insider, has no money, is from the Northeast (liberal New England, no less). He’s the product of, and thrives in a pre-Internet world where deals are done and votes are won in person, face to face, handshake to handshake, across party lines. Definitely old school.

But Dodd’s argument is that, in an uncertain world, and one divided by Red and Blue, voters are ready for someone who can make politics work by bridging gaps, talking turkey and doing deals. “I think I’ve demonstrated an ability to bring people together,” he said. “People are yearning for a sense of confidence in the country’s future,” he said. “Bringing people together is the way to do it.”

And though he doesn’t say so, the subtext is clear: I can do something that Hillary can’t.