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Are the Clintons using de Blasio to woo progressives?

The Clintons see the promise in de Blasio and may want to hitch their wagon to his progressive star in the event that Hillary runs for POTUS in 2016.
Former President Bill Clinton, left, speaks before he administers the oath of office to Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio, Jan 1, 2014.
Former President Bill Clinton, left, speaks before he administers the oath of office to Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio, Jan 1, 2014. 

Bill de Blasio took office as New York City’s mayor on Wednesday – Gotham's first Democratic hizzoner in over 20 years. It's a massive political shift for America's biggest city after two decades of Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg, but many eyes weren't necessarily focused on the new mayor. Instead, they were zoomed in on two other Democrats: Bill and Hillary Clinton.

Former President Bill Clinton, who was accompanied by wife and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, swore in de Blasio, giving their blessing as he embarks on a path to become one of the most progressive mayors in recent history.

The Clintons have long-standing ties to de Blasio, the former Public Advocate  who rode a populist wave to victory last year. So it's not like they're jumping on the bandwagon really late in the game. But surely, they also see the promise of Mayor de Blasio, and quite possibly want to hitch their wagon to his progressive star in the event that Hillary Clinton does decide to run for president in 2016.

Some political experts say the Clintons' appearance could be strategic, a bid to woo de Blasio-loving liberals for a 2016 Democratic primary, especially if more progressive lawmakers (hello, Elizabeth Warren types)  decide to throw their hats into the ring.

“Having a leading progressive in the country on [Hillary Clinton’s] side is enormously important,” said Jeanne Zaino, a professor of political science at Iona College and of political campaign management at New York University. She added if Hillary Clinton has a “surrogate” to tout her work on progressive issues, the more she can “try to run more of a center campaign that she’ll need to with the general election.”

At the inauguration ceremony at City Hall, Bill Clinton stressed the growing inequality in America and making an even playing field for everyone.

“This inequality problem bedevils the entire country," the former commander-in-chief said. "But it is not just a moral outrage, it is a horrible constraint on economic growth and on giving people the security they need to tackle problems like climate change."  He also discussed the importance of having a “city of shared opportunities shared prosperity shared responsibilities.”

This will surely be a key issue in the 2016 Democratic primaries. Income inequality and economic stagnation have long been a key issue for the middle class, but are particularly important to the liberal Democrats who turn out for presidential primaries.

The Clintons were in the front row on Wednesday, seated with New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and outgoing mayor Michael Bloomberg.

The new Big Apple mayor’s ties to Bill Clinton began in 1997 when he was just 39, after being appointed the New York and New Jersey regional director of the Department of Housing and Urban Development. De Blasio also helped run Hillary Clinton’s successful Senate campaign in 2000. Hillary Clinton returned the favor, headlining a fundraiser in the fall for de Blasio, which raked in $1 million.  At the time she said: “Hiring Bill de Blasio was one of the smartest decisions that I made.”

The couple initially stayed out of the race, but eventually endorsed de Blasio, a once-long shot candidate, after he was polling high and  won the Democratic primary. Also running in the primary was Rep. Anthony Weiner whose wife, Huma Abedin is a top Hillary Clinton aide.The cozy relationship has several benefits for de Blasio as well, from a fundraising perspective, if he decides to run for higher office and winning over more moderates in New York City. Ken Sherill, a political science professor at Hunter College, dismissed the idea that the Clintons were using de Blasio primarily for political gain.

“There’s a long-term connection there…I don’t think that they are using de Blasio any more than de Blasio is using them. And in politics, people make use of their friendships all the time,” he said. Of course, coming out full swing for de Blasio – before he’s even worked a full day in City Hall – could come with its own risks for the Clintons.

After all, De Blasio has laid out an aggressive agenda, which includes  putting an end to the city’s controversial Stop and Frisk program and to tax the rich to fund universal pre-Kindergarten.

Zaino said the first two years of de Blasio’s time in office will be crucial. “If he faces any enormous challenges, if there is a scandal, if his promises  and policies don’t come to fruition…The closer Hillary Clinton is to him, the more people can honestly say that this wave of populism is good theoretically but in practice does not work.”

 There’s also the danger that de Blasio may be too far to the left to help Hillary Clinton.

 “It could give Republicans an opening within which to attack her and make her less appealing to people in the center,” said Zaino.