When Hillary Meets Ned

Hillary Clinton is meeting with Ned Lamont in the next few days on her home turf in Chappaqua in what may well be a more important meeting for her future than for Lamont's. Their get-together is coming at a crossroads moment for both Hillary and the Democratic Party.

In recent weeks Lamont has come from nowhere to beat Lieberman in the primary and he shows no signs of letting up. As the latest polls show, he has caught up to Lieberman in their general election rematch -- the two are currently in a statistical dead heat. The state's Democratic voters are backing Lamont by a 35 percent margin while the state's Republican voters are backing Lieberman by 40 percent.

So where is the Democratic Party's presumptive 2008 standard-bearer? Precariously balancing on the tip of a triangulation strategy. As usual.

Sure, Hillary's offered Lamont her perfunctory "following the will of the people" support and a check for 5 grand, but her actions seem to validate the behind-the-scenes rumblings I'm hearing that she'd much rather see Lieberman win. Could it be that she thinks a Lieberman win will diffuse the hits she'll inevitably take in 2008 for having, like Joe, been a bellicose backer of the war in Iraq? It's as if she's wishing that she could put the war repudiation genie back in the bottle.

She's not raising money for Lamont and she's not yet scheduled any campaign appearances with him either. It's not by accident that their meeting is in Chappaqua, not Connecticut. The mountain/Mohammad casting is clear. Compare her actions with those of John Kerry and John Edwards who are doing all they can to help Lamont.

As Kerry put it, "it's gut check time for Democrats." And not just in Connecticut. The Lamont/Lieberman showdown is about a lot more than a single Senate seat. It's about the future direction of the Democratic Party -- which is why the GOP is doing all it can to stop Lamont and to ensure a Lieberman victory.

Republicans realize that Lamont represents a re-energized opposition, a reinvigorated Democratic Party fueled by progressive ideals, a willingness to stand up to the GOP smear machine, and a motivated netroots. This scares the hell out of Bush and company, which is why they are throwing their support behind Lieberman. They already know how to beat Lieberman Democrats. Indeed, they beat Lieberman Democrats in 2000, 2002, and 2004. Lamont Democrats are a whole different story. The jump in new Connecticut Democratic voter registration and record turnout in the primary are telltale signs for all to read.

That's why the stand Democratic presidential hopefuls take in Connecticut is so vital. The Lamont/Lieberman battle is no longer a Dem vs Dem race. The facts are clear: Lieberman's campaign is running on Republican resources, Republican consultants, Republican voter files, Republican swift boat groups.

So any Democrat who isn't standing strong for Lamont is, in effect, providing cover for the Radical Right -- Lieberman's vows to caucus with Democrats notwithstanding. Do you really think Rove and the NRSC aren't expecting some future quid for their quo? And how surprised would you be if, in exchange for some plumb committee chairmanship, Lieberman ends up caucusing with Republicans -- and sanctimoniously justifying it as for the good of bipartisanship and the good of the country?

Of course, there are some Democratic power players who are supporting Lieberman outright. They are the ones wearing the uniform of the old guard, the ones who see their hold on the reigns of party power slipping away, the ones who want to pretend the seismic shift that Lamont's ascendancy represents is an aberration and not a harbinger of things to come -- the ones with the sweat on their lips.

Leading this group is Steve Rattner -- private equity banker, major Democratic donor, and longtime friend of the Clintons. He's backing Lieberman because Joe is the kind of politician establishment money types like Rattner are most comfortable backing -- and controlling. He's also backing him because a Lieberman victory fits in with an even grander scheme for 2008.

Rattner is a longtime backer of New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg (he was the head of Democrats for Bloomberg in 2005), and for over a month has been talking with Bloomberg about mounting an independent bid for the White House in '08 (a bid given a shot in the arm by David Brooks' recent centrist, third party, and Lieberman-touting op-ed). Rattner and company (which includes investment banker Roger Altman, deputy secretary of the Treasury under Bill Clinton) see Lieberman's independent run as a test case for a Bloomberg bid, which is why I hear they've been hitting up their pals in the Hamptons and the Vineyard for Lieberman contributions.

Rattner's efforts have created another triangle -- and another conundrum -- for Hillary. Rattner is married to Maureen White, who recently gave up a high-profile gig as National Finance Chair at the DNC to help Hillary build up her war chest for a possible presidential campaign. So while Rattner is pushing for a Bloomberg run that would clearly undermine the chances of any Democratic nominee, his wife it strategizing for a Hillary run. It's the kind of triangulating that the Clintons are very comfortable with but which is electoral poison for the Democratic Party. [Update: Today's New York Times reports that while traveling in Ireland, Bloomberg said that he has "no plans to run for president." For Hillary, one less pointy triangle tip to be skewered on. For Rattner, more free time to help out Lieberman.]

Which is why Hillary needs to come out of her meeting with Lamont and hit the campaign trail on his behalf. Hard and often.

Not only is this the right thing to do, it's also the smart thing to do to improve her chances for '08. Ned Lamont represents the future of the Democratic Party; Lieberman its past.

So, will Hillary embrace a dynamo or stick with a dinosaur?
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