So Much for the Clinton-Obama Ticket

Hillary Clinton called Barack Obama “irresponsible and frankly naïve,” Barack Obama fired back that electing Hillary Clinton could mean “continuing with Bush-Cheney policies,” and finally Hillary Clinton asked, “What’s ever happened to the politics of hope?”

So went the first full-throttle front-runners’ spat in the Democratic race, and among the many consequences of the earlier-than-expected (and Hillary-instigated) sniping should be the muting of talk of a Clinton-Obama ticket.

On paper, such a pairing would be the perfect recipe for a party hungry to win back the White House and too keep it for some time, with the youthful Mr. Obama lending his irresistible personality to a ticket led by the more experienced but less warm Mrs. Clinton. Then, after helping Mrs. Clinton win in 2008 (and, for the sake of this scenario, 2012 as well) Vice-President Obama would be clear to seek the presidency on his own, untroubled by suggestions that he’s too green for the national and international stage.

From a strategic standpoint, the Clinton campaign may regret throwing the first punch this week, since doing so gave the lagging Mr. Obama an opening to define his candidacy against Mrs. Clinton’s in more specific terms; previously, the prevailing Clinton ploy had been to mute issue differences with Mr. Obama and to assert simply that Mrs. Clinton is the more seasoned and inevitable choice.

But even if Mrs. Clinton now reverts to holding her fire, this week’s flare-up hints at very real tension not just between the two front-runners’ campaigns but between the candidates themselves. And that, in turn, suggests that Mrs. Clinton, should she ultimately secure the nomination, will be inclined to thumb her nose at any pressure from within the party to tap Mr. Obama as her running-mate. (There is no serious thought that Mr. Obama, if he were to win, would face similar pressure to fill out his ticket with Mrs. Clinton.)

Yes, the history of national ticket match-making is peppered with former rivals–sometimes bitter rivals–teaming up.

Most famously, there was Ronald Reagan’s selection of George H.W. Bush in 1980 – after Mr. Bush had spent the primary season deriding Reagan’s supply side economic prescriptions as “voodoo economics.” (And before turning to Mr. Bush, Reagan very nearly tapped the same Gerald Ford whom he had unsuccessfully challenged–but fatally roughed up–in the 1976 GOP primaries.)

There was also the “Boston-Austin” teaming of John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson in 1960, consecrated after Johnson had ridiculed Kennedy, who suffered from Addison’s Disease and chronic back problems, as a ”little scrawny fellow with rickets.” And, of course, there was 2004, when John Kerry was talked into choosing John Edwards, who, sensing it might come to that, had bent over backwards not to attack Mr. Kerry too harshly during the Democratic primaries. (And lest we forget Bob Dole’s selection in 1996 of Jack Kemp, with whom he had competed for the 1988 GOP nomination, when Mr. Kemp charged that Mr. Dole “never met a tax he didn’t hike.”)

But there was a common bond in all of those cases: Each of those presidential nominees, at the time of their party convention, did not have the standing to tell the powerful voices whispering in their ears to go screw.

Reagan, for instance, was still seen as too radical for the general election and was already facing the threat of a splintered GOP with the independent candidacy of John B. Anderson. To reassure moderates and independents in the fall and to keep his party’s own centrist forces from siding with Mr. Anderson, Reagan faced enormous pressure to tap an establishment-friendly face for his ticket. Mr. Bush, an Eastern Establishment figure who had run sharply to Reagan’s left in the primaries, fit the bill nicely.

Similarly, Kennedy won a first ballot victory at the 1960 Democratic convention, but his Catholicism and Boston accent stoked fears within the party that he’d be electoral poison in the pivotal South, a region that had yet to embrace the GOP. Kennedy ended up carrying Texas and its 24 electoral votes by 40,000 votes in the fall, along with a handful of other southern states – success that owed itself to Johnson, who was loathed by Kennedy’s trusted brother and campaign chief Bobby.

Even Mr. Kerry in ’04 clearly preferred a different V.P. choice – Richard Gephardt, specifically – that the one that his party’s major donors (and even a good chunk of its grassroots base) preferred. But the circumstances of Mr. Kerry nomination and the nature of the fall election – Democrats, in an utterly unprecedented way, called off their infighting in the primary season and rallied behind Mr. Kerry early, believing him to be the safest choice to oppose the despised President Bush in the fall – made the Massachusetts Senator unusually subservient to the will of his party’s influential voices. The party faithful badly wanted John Edwards on the ticket in ’04 and Mr. Kerry didn’t want – and couldn’t afford – to disappoint them.

But Mrs. Clinton figures to enjoy much more latitude than Reagan, Kennedy or even John Kerry had.

Mrs. Clinton is already tending rather effectively to her party’s vast network of interest groups and single-issue constituencies, and so – unlike Reagan – she won’t need to mollify one particular camp with her VP pick. And unlike Mr. Kerry, the supposedly inoffensive vessel for his party’s hopes, Mrs. Clinton is a high-wattage political celebrity, a (prospective) nominee who would be able to call her own shots in a way Mr. Kerry couldn’t.

Sure, the Democrats will be just as hungry for victory in 2008 as they were four years ago, but the climate has shifted dramatically in their favor. Whereas the country was evenly divided throughout the ’04 campaign, polls now consistently give a generic Democrat a double-digit edge over a generic Republican. If she wins the nomination, Mrs. Clinton will not face the same fatalistic, you’d-better-pick-this-VP-or-we’re-doomed-in-the-fall pressure that Mr. Kerry did.

All of this means that, if nominated, Mrs. Clinton will have the standing to spurn Democratic match-makers who might plead with her to choose Mr. Obama. In essence, she would have unusual license to consider what’s best for January 2009 – and not November 2008 – in making her call. And if that’s her primary consideration, then, as this week showed, Barack Obama shouldn’t be expecting any phone calls from Hillary Clinton come next summer.