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,” Mr. 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 Mr. 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 Mr. Rendell, to point out one minor flaw with the Clinton campaign’s matchmaking 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 Mrs. Clinton—and not Mr. 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 VP 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 Mr. Obama, and not Mrs. 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 superdelegates to pull the rug out from under Mr. Obama.
Talking up her foe as 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 Mr. Obama has a clear advantage. By acting like a presumptive nominee and engaging in running-mate speculation, Mrs. 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 Mr. Obama would be her VP choice also potentially offers reassurance to superdelegates. If Hillary succeeds in the coming months in planting enough doubts about Mr. Obama’s general-election viability to make them uneasy, superdelegates could theoretically rationalize turning on Mr. Obama—the pledged-delegate and popular-vote winner—if they felt certain that he’d wind up on the ticket anyway.