When he deputized Warren Christopher to oversee his search for a running mate in the spring of 1992, Bill Clinton recoiled at the suggestion that he might use the process to float names and score political points.
“I think it’s important not to play games with people’s names,” Clinton insisted. “I don’t think that’s a good thing to do.”
Sixteen years later, though, that’s precisely what Bill and Hillary Clinton are doing as they try to damn Barack Obama—the front-runner in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination—with the faint praise that he’d make a fine candidate for vice president.
“I’ve had people say, ‘Well I wish I could vote for both of you,’” Hillary said in Mississippi late last week. “Well, that might be possible some day. But first I need your vote on Tuesday.”
And Bill said that his wife “has always been open to“ a Clinton-Obama ticket, “because she believes that if you can unite the energy that he’s brought in and the people in these vast swaths of small town and rural America that she’s carried overwhelmingly, if you had those two things together, she thinks it’d be hard to beat.”
These are anything but spontaneous expressions of magnanimity. The Obama-as-Veep concept has, in the wake of Hillary’s Ohio and Texas victories, emerged as a prime talking point from Hillary (who has now hinted at the possibility at least three times), her husband, and their top surrogates.
On Sunday, Ed Rendell, the chief Clinton backer in Pennsylvania, used a “Meet the Press” appearance to endorse a hypothetical Clinton-Obama ticket, saying that Obama would make a “fine” president but that he’s just “not as ready as Hillary Clinton.”
It was left to Tom Daschle, appearing opposite Rendell, to point out one minor flaw with the Clinton campaign’s match-making scheme: “It’s really a rare occurrence—maybe the first time in history—that the person who’s running No. 2 would offer the person who’s running No. 1 the No. 2 position.”
That’s just the point. Rest assured, if the tables were turned and it was Clinton—and not Obama—leading the Democratic charge, we wouldn’t be hearing a peep from the Clintons about Obama’s desirability as a No. 2. Sure, Hillary might ultimately be pressured by the party’s heavyweights into tapping her rival for the V.P. slot, but she wouldn’t be out there stoking such talk. Recall that Bill, back in ‘92, never gave a serious look to his vanquished rival, Paul Tsongas—even though Tsongas won numerous contests and was still drawing significant support in primaries months after dropping out.
But in 2008, the Clintons are not dealing from that same position of strength. There is now no conceivable scenario under which Hillary will end the primary and caucus season with more pledged delegates than Obama, and the possibility that she might catch him in cumulative popular votes is remote.
That means that Obama, and not Clinton, will hold the two trump cards with the uncommitted superdelegates who will ultimately put one of the candidates over the top. And that, in turn, means that Hillary has to dig ever deeper in search of some kind of game-changing inducement that might prompt those superdelgates to pull the rug out from under Obama.
Talking up her foe as a vice-presidential material is a tactic designed to work on multiple fronts.
First, it seeks to foster the perception that the Democratic race is dead even and that, therefore, both candidates will have equally legitimate claims to the nomination when the superdelegates make their decisions. The reality, of course, is that the race is tight, but that Obama has a clear advantage. By acting like a presumptive nominee and engaging in running-mate speculation, Clinton hopes to keep the press and the general public from writing her off. Ronald Reagan tried a similar trick in 1976 when he feigned confidence and anointed a running mate before the Republican convention—even though a loss to Gerald Ford seemed imminent.
Hinting that Obama would be her V.P. choice also potentially offers reassurance to superdelegates. If Hillary succeeds in the coming months in planting enough doubts about Obama’s general election viability to make them uneasy, superdelegates could theoretically rationalize turning on Obama—the pledged delegate and popular vote winner—if they felt certain that he’d wind up on the ticket anyway.
The tactic is also designed to lower Obama’s stature among voters in the remaining primaries. Even though all available polling evidence shows that Obama is the superior general election candidate, the Clintons—if late-deciding voters in Texas and Ohio are any indication—may be having some success in making Obama seem like a risky fall candidate.
Of course, these same voters still like Obama on a personal level, much more than they like Hillary. Sp do I, is what Clinton is, in effect, saying when she mentions the V.P. scenario, but he just can’t beat John McCain on his own.
If voters in the spring primary and caucus states buy into this logic, Hillary would be in position to lay claim to a late burst of momentum as the primary season closes. To superdelegates, she could then sell that momentum as proof that the masses had come around to her and turned on Obama—and that the safest course of action would be to hand her the nomination and Obama a nice consolation prize.
Of course, the early evidence suggests it won’t work at all. The Obama-for-V.P. story made quite a splash last week, but when the votes were counted in Wyoming—a state where the entire Clinton family campaigned heavily—his margin was a healthy-as-ever 23 points.
Clinton’s sudden magnanimity towards Obama is a tactic—nothing more. And it says a lot more about her prospects than his.