06/14/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Clinton's What If: Ickes' Abandoned Run At DNC Chair

The post-mortems are just now trickling in on Sen. Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign, and already there is a list of "what-could-have-beens" lining up. Among the most interesting: what if Clinton had hired David Axelrod and not Mark Penn to run the media aspects of her Senate campaign (something she seriously considered doing); and what if, after leaving the White House, she moved to Illinois (as opposed to New York), in the process blocking the political rise of a young pol named Barack Obama.

On Friday, NBC's Chuck Todd posed another "turning-back-the-clock" scenario, tracing the first signs of Clinton's downfall back to the 2004 election of Howard Dean as chair of the Democratic National Committee. As Todd writes:

"[Howard] Dean's election was a clear break from the Clinton way of running the DNC. In hindsight, it was a mistake for a political family which believes it controlled the Democratic Party to have allowed Dean and his grassroots followers to take over. Perhaps, the Clintons believed they couldn't stop Dean, but it was an early sign of weakness which eventually would lead to an unfriendly primary calendar."

It's a fascinating anecdote, but with one key missing component. Before Dean had officially declared that he was running for DNC chair one of the aspirants for the post was Harold Ickes, the same adviser who would end up leading Clinton's spirited but ultimately unsuccessful delegate push.

Indeed, as the Democrats pondered the wreckage of the 2004 elections, Icke's promised to use his institutional knowledge of party fundraising and internal machinations to "really focus on building the state part apparatus."

"Each Presidential election is unique, and the uniqueness of this election was 9/11," he said. "So I think '08 will be up for grabs. It will come down to candidates and issues. We just need to find good candidates and run strong campaigns... I think the emphasis really has to be now on developing state parties. The Republican Party has invested serious resources in their state party apparatus, but ours have sort of languished, because we Democrats tend to grab the resources and bring them to Washington, and we haven't given state parties much incentive."

Other officials including Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack and former New Hampshire Governor Jeanne Shaheen, were believed to be in the running, but Ickes, at the time, was reported to have had the Clintons' backing. "This is the first test of whether the Clintons can keep their grip on the party," the New York Post quoted "one Democrat" as saying.

And, for a brief period of time, he campaigned for the post. Then, less than a month before the election, Ickes dropped out. The decision, observers say, was driven by a recognition that the job was somewhat thankless and that the qualities needed to be a successful DNC were not those he possessed.

"I just decided I probably did not have enough of the attributes (a chairman needs) to do the party justice," Ickes said at the time.

The greatest ripple effects of this episode, however, were felt weeks later. Days before the election, Ickes threw his support behind Howard Dean, an unexpected and consequential move.

"His endorsement came at an instrumental moment of the process," recalled NDN head Simon Rosenberg, who had flirted with the DNC run in 2004. "Everything came together for Dean and Harold was part of that."

How much of a difference did this make? It's difficult to tell. The DNC policies that proved so problematic for Clinton's candidacy came with Ickes backing. From the Rules and Bylaws Committee, he signed off on Dean's decision to punish Florida and Michigan as well as the party's choice to move Nevada and South Carolina ahead on the primary calendar (Clinton preferred having Alabama and Arizona go early). In fact, way back in 1998, it was Ickes, then with Jesse Jackson's presidential campaign, who successfully insisted that the primary process be proportional and not winner take all.

"Harold is a huge architect of the modern system," Rosenberg said. "So when the Clintons are arguing they would have won in a winner take all system, I assume they look down the hall and say: 'Harold, you're responsible for this.'"

But still, the possibility of having a more favorable figure atop the party's apparatus surely wouldn't have hurt Clinton's candidacy. And, among the myriad of other "what ifs" it is useful to consider Ickes abandoned DNC run.

"If Harold had chair I don't know how things would have been different," said Rosenberg, "but they would have been different."

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