GQ: Kiss the Ring

With a month left in the campaign, I ask one of Rahm's top aides about Dean, and she explodes. "He's so frustrating. I just don't like him, anyway. I haven't liked him from the beginning. It's totally bizarre dealing with him.

She goes on, "It's not just that we only got $2.4 million, but we're also supposed to not say mean things about Howard Dean. And Rahm's supposed to act like everything's wonderful." After the showdown in May, the two men didn't speak until election night.

The division was not only tactical but also ideological. Since 2004 the Democratic party has divided into two warring camps, the Deaniacs and the Clintonites. On one side are Dean, the state parties, various liberal bloggers, and antiwar activists. They see the Clinton years as a wasted era in which party institutions withered and a White House obsessively focused on winning the next news cycle sold out the traditional values of the Democratic Party and ultimately delivered Congress to the Republicans. On the other side are Rahm and the Clintonites, who strongly believe that the only future for the party is to hew to the ideological middle and are bewildered that the Clinton legacy, successful both in terms of politics (two presidential wins) and results (peace and prosperity), is being second-guessed by their own side.

Last summer Rahm authored a book with Bruce Reed, Clinton's top domestic-policy adviser and now president of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council—the source of much evil, according to Deaniacs—that laid out an agenda for Democrats that includes free trade, small steps to increase the number of people with health insurance, and some worthy political-process reforms. When I ask Rahm about the criticism that the book's ideas are too incremental, too stuck in the '90s version of Clintonism, he angrily interrupts, "Oh, you mean the period in time when there was the first Democrat president to get reelected since Franklin Delano Roosevelt? That period of time?"

As this campaign took shape, it became clear that the election was going to be a referendum not just on Bush but also on this schism among the Democrats. Rahm installed his three closest friends from the Clinton era—Carville, political adviser Paul Begala, and pollster Stan Greenberg—as a strategic brain trust, and throughout the campaign he leaned heavily on Clinton for help. "We spoke often, usually once or twice a week," Bill Clinton told me via e-mail. "Early on, Rahm asked me to do a number of fund-raising and campaign appearances. As the campaign developed, he asked me to do more. I know I did every event he requested." Rahm also dispatched his former boss to trouble spots and enlisted him to recruit reluctant candidates, like North Carolina's Heath Shuler. And Rahm says Clinton often knew the individual districts better than he did. "When we wanted him to go to Cincinnati," Rahm tells me, "he calls and says, 'Are you sure you want me in Cincinnati, given the white ethnic community?' Don't [expletive] with that guy. He knows his numbers. He knows where he plays and where he doesn't play."

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When I ask whether the wounds from '94 have something to do with Clinton's enthusiasm to help, Rahm once again gives me the [expletive]-idiot look. "I think that had something to do with his interest and energy," he says sarcastically, and then he adds, "There is no doubt. This is payback time."

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