David Geffen makes for an unlikely foot soldier.

He might not know it, but the entertainment mogul’s barb at the Clintons this past week was perhaps the first salvo thrown in the coming war within the Democratic Party. Geffen, a former supporter of the Clintons, perhaps vocalized a frustration that has lingered with Democrats for some time.

This battle won’t be over ideology. After all, on that point, there’s little difference between Clinton and Obama. But where the true divide rests is over the direction, and the tone, of the Democratic Party. In one corner, you have the Clintonistas, triangulation and James Carville. In the other corner, you have Obamania, the blogosphere and David Axelrod.

Democrats haven’t taken the White House since 1996. But one could argue that they haven’t elected a genuine “Liberal” since 1964. This debate was televised in the streets of Chicago in 1968, and made Ralph Nader a more attractive option for some in 2000. It’s a divide between policy and politics that has haunted Democrats, and now it plays out again before our very eyes. Emboldened by a Democratic wave in Congress, the party’s base can smell blood. To many, the time to wrest the Democratic Party from what Bill Kristol calls the “Clinton captivity” is now:

Will it set the Democrats free? It could. Hillary Clinton was cruising along, raising big money, triangulating on Iraq, rounding up supporters who felt they had little choice but to sign on. And then Geffen spoke up. Suddenly Democrats all over the country may be thinking to themselves, “Well, what about that? Why exactly do we have to be for Hillary anyway? Shouldn’t we consider some alternatives?”

Once unleashed, this series of thoughts is subversive. So much of the Hillary Clinton candidacy depends on an aura of inevitability, supported by oodles of money and a fear of retribution if you’re not on board. But what if she’s not inevitable? And what if the retribution isn’t so all-powerful?

This is a healthy debate for the Democrats. Better that it happen inside the Big Tent rather than outside of it, to paraphrase (and sanitize) a Lyndon Johnson quote. And better it plays out now, rather than a year from now. Republicans who might be taking joy in the squabbling between their rivals should be careful. If they think Obama vs. Clinton is entertaining, just wait until Rudy, Romney and McCain start playing in the mud.

To John Edwards and the rest of the Democratic hopefuls–my condolences. This party divide is bigger than all of you, and there are now only two heavyweights left in this fight. The Audacity of Hope vs. the Man from Hope is now in full effect, and only one will be left standing.

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