LOS ANGELES – Hillary Clinton has a complicated dance to do as she prepares for the 2008 presidential election.
She has to move far enough to the left to win the Democratic presidential nomination, while staying close enough to the center to win a presidential election. She has to satisfy the anti-war left that can’t abide her position on the war without giving those who would brand her as purely political in the worst sense of the word an opportunity to accuse her of the biggest flip-flop of the decade.
And, she has to accomplish that while sitting in the Senate and voting, which is a notoriously terrible place to be from to run for president, because of the endless series of votes and positions you’re forced to take.
Viewed from that perspective, Hillary’s announcement last week that she would support the winner of the Connecticut Democratic primary for Senate makes absolutely perfect sense. It gives her an ideal opportunity to reach out to the left, to the anti-war crowd, to the base of the Democratic Party, at very low cost.
Whether it will ever come to that – and it likely will – is almost beside the point. She gets credit now and, potentially, credit later as well.
What is happening in Connecticut has captured the attention of the nation both because of the players involved and the issues at stake. What started out as a long shot challenge for three-term incumbent Democrat Joe Lieberman from millionaire Ned Lamont has now become sufficiently serious that Lieberman has made plans to lose, announcing that he will run as an Independent if he fails to win the Democratic nomination.
To assure his place on the ballot, he’s already collecting signatures. What’s giving Lamont much of his momentum is Lieberman’s position on the Iraq war; with help from the national, left-leaning blogging community, Lamont has turned the Connecticut Senate race into a referendum on the war, and in that contest, he’s been gaining steadily.
The first thing to note about Hillary’s announcement on Tuesday is that Hillary didn’t have to make it. Other party leaders, including Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid and Sen. Chuck Schumer, Hillary’s colleague from New York and the Chairman of the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee, have successfully ducked the question of what they will do if the former vice presidential nominee loses the primary on Aug. 8 and decides to run as an Independent.
Reid and Schumer are simply saying that they’re supporting Lieberman in the primary, and leaving it at that. As Phil Singer, the spokesman for the Senate Campaign Committee, put it, “We aren’t going to speculate about what happens next because that would undermine our candidate.”
Lieberman has announced that if he wins as an Independent, he’ll vote to organize the Senate as a Democrat, so this isn’t about winning the Senate. Hillary could’ve done the same thing Reid and Schumer are doing, if she wanted to. She didn’t. Instead, she declared: “I’ve known Joe Lieberman for more than 30 years. I have been pleased to support him in his campaign for re-election and hope that he is our party’s nominee. But I want to be clear that I will support the nominee chosen by Connecticut Democrats in their primary. I believe in the Democratic primary, and I believe we must honor the decisions made by Democratic primary voters.” Sorry, Joe.
The second thing to take into account about Joe Lieberman is that while he came within a whisker of being vice president, he has absolutely no base among Democratic primary and caucus voters, particularly in Iowa and New Hampshire.
In 2004, his own campaign for president went absolutely nowhere in those states. He won no delegates. He was a force to be ignored.
The third thing to remember about Joe Lieberman is that when the going got tough for Bill Clinton, no Democrat was tougher on him than Joe Lieberman. While the rest of us were out there trying to figure out how to defend the indefensible in order to avoid a constitutional crisis that did lead to impeachment and could have lead to the president’s removal from office, Sen. Lieberman took to the floor to moralize about Bill Clinton and the intern.
He was the Republicans’ favorite Democrat. “[A] president’s private life is public,” Joe said then, rejecting the president’s pleas to the contrary; the president’s behavior was “not just inappropriate. It is immoral. And it is harmful...”
Speaking even before the Starr report, Lieberman rejected the suggestion that Congress “‘move on’ and get this matter behind us” arguing that “the transgressions the president has admitted to are too consequential for us to walk away.”
There was a reason Joe Lieberman was Bill Clinton’s last choice for vice president (John Edwards was his first) when he spoke to me on the eve of the 2000 Democratic Convention, and that Al Gore’s ultimate selection of the Connecticut Senator was perceived as an expression of independence from, if not a direct rebuke of, Clinton.
Academics, as well as others, have since argued that such independence cost him the presidency.
So for all the talk of lifelong friendships, and knowing each other for 30 years and all that, the fact is that Hillary Clinton owes Joe Lieberman nothing, and there is very little he can do for her.
They may agree with each other in terms of positioning, at least in general election terms; they may share many common supporters, or at least fundraisers. But in politics, you measure friendship not by who’s there for you when things are good (the answer is everybody), but by who stays when things turn.
And by that measure, Hillary and Joe aren’t friends and haven’t been for years. And this week just proved it one more time.
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Estrich's books include "Real Rape," "Getting Away with Murder: How Politics is Destroying the Criminal Justice System," "Dealing with Dangerous Offenders," "Making the Case for Yourself: A Diet Book for Smart Women" and "Sex & Power," currently a Los Angeles Times bestseller.
She served as campaign manager for Michael Dukakis' presidential bid, becoming the first woman to head a U.S. presidential campaign. Estrich appears regularly on the FOX News Channel.