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It's not every new mayor who gets to be sworn in by a former president while a former first lady and secretary of state looks on. But New York's Bill de Blasio is not just any rookie mayor and Bill and Hillary Clinton are not just any former Washington power couple.

Mr. de Blasio is the most unapologetically leftist New York mayor in decades and a symbol of the recent ascendancy of the liberal populists in the Democratic Party. The Clintons are the wiliest political duo in modern U.S. history, out to rewrite the latter so as to ease Hillary's path toward 2016.

So it was that all three joined together in the cold on New Year's Day as Mr. de Blasio became New York's 109th mayor, vowing to "put an end to the economic and social inequalities" of his city. He plans to start by raising taxes on the rich to fund universal preschool programs.

Mr. de Blasio's inauguration marked an improbable political coronation. The former Clinton backroom strategist rose from a lacklustre pack of candidates in the Democratic mayoral primary by seizing the liberal zeitgeist. He railed against New York's rising rich-poor gap under mayor Michael Bloomberg, while showcasing his biracial children and bisexual wife as exemplars of the modern family.

"It used to be in New York you worried about getting mugged. But today's mugging is economic," Mr. de Blasio said on the campaign trail, making New York's "tale of two cities" his campaign theme. After two decades of law-and-order and pro-Wall Street mayors in Rudy Giuliani and Mr. Bloomberg, Mr. de Blasio's inaugural speech promised a "new, progressive direction" for New York.

Mr. Clinton chimed in Wednesday, calling economic inequality a "moral outrage" that "bedevils the entire country." He "strongly" endorsed Mr. de Blasio's "core campaign commitment that we have to have a city of shared opportunities, shared prosperity, shared responsibilities."

Seasoned Clinton-watchers recognized the shameless opportunism in Bill and Hill's cozying up to Mr. de Blasio. As Ms. Clinton contemplates a second White House run, her biggest threat remains the liberal purists in the party who have formed an informal Democratic version of the Tea Party. The purists despise the Clintons and are pushing Massachusetts Senator and anti-Wall Street crusader Elizabeth Warren to mount an anybody-but-Hillary candidacy for 2016.

In 1992, Mr. Clinton moved the Democratic Party from the left-of-centre wilderness, where it had wallowed under previous presidential nominees Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis, to the pro-business centre. Nothing epitomized this shift more than the deregulation of Wall Street that occurred on Mr. Clinton's presidential watch. His Treasury chief, Robert Rubin, spent a quarter-century at investment bank Goldman Sachs before joining the administration.

The policies enacted under Mr. Rubin and his underling and eventual successor at Treasury, Lawrence Summers, are widely seen as paving the way for the unsupervised financial bonanza that led to the 2008 crash. Together with Republican George W. Bush's tax cuts, the financial industry bonuses that flowed from Mr. Clinton's economic and tax policies are blamed for creating the growing chasm between the richest 1 per cent of Americans and the other 99 per cent.

This is the United States that Mr. de Blasio and Ms. Warren decry. But in their ideological zeal, they would move the pendulum so far in the other direction as to create a new set of economic problems more threatening than the inequality they seek to eradicate.

Centrist Democrats, such as Jon Cowan and Jim Kessler of the Third Way think tank, have argued that they would lead the party over the "populist cliff" with their tax-and-spend ideas. But there is little doubt these diehard redistributionists have captured the hearts of the Democratic base that will choose the party's next presidential nominee. Grumblings by Ms. Warren and her allies killed Mr. Summers's ambition of heading the U.S. central bank, even though he was President Barack Obama's preferred candidate.

Yet, no one is more threatened by the emerging Democratic schism than Ms. Clinton, who once wooed Wall Street as a New York senator. The recent adoption of the so-called Volcker Rule (prohibiting some risky trading on Wall Street) is seen as a repudiation of her husband's policies. Her rivals note her recent pep talk at Goldman Sachs.

By making Mr. de Blasio their newest BFF, the canny Clintons are hedging Hillary's bets.