Now that the remaining suspense has been drained from the actual race for the Democratic nomination, we’re on to the next great guessing game: Will Barack Obama be compelled to offer Hillary Clinton the number-two slot?
There’s certainly a strong and highly logical case to be made. Between the two of them, Obama and Clinton will have attracted upward of 36 million votes when all of the primaries are over, with only a few hundred thousand votes separating them. That’s nearly 60 percent of the total number of votes George W. Bush received in the 2004 general election.
Moreover, the Obama and Clinton coalitions are demographically disparate and have been stuck in place for some time. No amount of bad news, it seems, can shake either candidates’ supporters from their devotion. How, then, could Obama as the presidential nominee not at least offer the vice presidency to his rival? It would ensure unity and send the Democrats into the general election with a massive, fervent and quite possibly unbeatable coalition behind them. And conversely, wouldn’t snubbing her needlessly risk the wrath of her legions of rabid backers, many of whom have not been subtle about threatening to back John McCain over Obama?
No one thinks that Obama, in his heart, wants Clinton on his ticket. And he certainly doesn’t want her and her husband in his administration, pursuing their own agendas and threatening to overshadow and undermine him every step of the way. The question, though, is whether he can take a pass on her for VP without severely complicating his general-election chances.
For several reasons, the answer is yes.
First, there’s Clinton herself. She may be thoroughly uninterested in the job and could simply make it clear in the run-up to the convention that, despite her supporters’ ardent wishes that she be offered the spot, she doesn’t want it. That, obviously, would kill the idea and free Obama to do more or less as he pleases.
But even if she were to decide that she wants it, there’s not much she could do in terms of retribution if Obama were to (diplomatically) refuse—not if she wants to retain her viability for a future White House run. This is not small point. From this point forward, with her 2008 prospects all but gone, it’s essential to consider the 2012 factor in all of Clinton’s moves.
The implicit message of her campaign has been that only a Democrat with the Clinton surname is capable of winning a presidential election; all the rest are un-vetted amateurs who will be ravaged by the Republican Attack Machine. She and her husband would never say this publicly, of course, but their actions this campaign strongly suggest that, more or less, they believe it. And if Obama, as they seem to believe he will, succumbs to the G.O.P. this fall, the 2012 nomination will be wide open, and it could be Clinton’s for the taking.
But not if Democrats blame her for Obama’s defeat. The key, then, is for Clinton to be gracious in defeat and to exert herself mightily on Obama’s behalf in the fall, leaving no doubt that she’s a team player. If Obama loses, it will leave Democrats ruing their decision to nominate him over her and inclined to accept her arguments about electability in 2012. But if she were to offer only lukewarm support to Obama or to sit out the fall, Democrats would end up pointing their fingers at her. Unlike many past contests, 2008 is an election Democrats expect to win. For the leader who mucks this up, there will be hell to pay.
In other words, when it comes to bringing the Clintons aboard for the fall, Obama has more leverage than most people realize. Assuming he doesn’t willfully antagonize them, he’ll almost certainly find them agreeable to rolling up their sleeves and pitching in on his behalf once the primaries are over. They’ll be doing it for their own sake much more than his. But the key point is that they’ll be doing it, even if Obama never offers her the vice presidency.
In fact, a case can be made that the Clintons already did this once before, back in 2004, when a John Kerry victory in the general election would have sabotaged Hillary’s plans to run in 2008, perhaps permanently ending her White House ambition. But you never would have known that when, just days before the election, Bill Clinton dramatically re-emerged from his heart surgery recuperation at a massive rally in Philadelphia where he effusively sang Kerry’s praises and rallied his old supporters to the Democratic cause. A Kerry win would have thrown a wrench in the Clintons’ plans, but they knew what they had to do and they did it.
History may also be on Obama’s side if he passes on Clinton as his VP. Once before in the modern era has a nominating contest been as close as the Obama-Clinton race: the 1976 Republican race between Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan, which wasn’t settled until Reagan came up short in a series of procedural fights at the G.O.P. convention in Kansas City.
In the primaries, Reagan essentially fought Ford to a draw, winning nearly as many delegates as he did and amassing a large and faithful coalition of conservative voters who felt alienated from the Ford White House. Arguably, the case was even stronger in ’76 for Ford to select Reagan as his running mate, since they each represented such ideologically opposite wings.
But Ford did no such thing. But he did seek Reagan’s counsel and Reagan recommended a second-term senator from Kansas named Bob Dole. In a nod to the Reagan forces, Ford picked Dole, knowing that his own preferred choice, Watergate hero William Ruckelshaus, would be anathema to the right.
Dole proved a minor disaster as a running mate, making headlines mainly for his ugly, bare-knuckles rhetoric (World Wars I and II, Korea and Vietnam were “all Democrat wars” and Jimmy Carter was “southern-fried McGovern”), but party unity wasn’t an issue in the fall. From 33 points behind Jimmy Carter in late August, Ford and Dole rallied and even took the lead in the final pre-election polls. In the end, they fell inches short, but that was the result of last-minute doubts among swing voters about Ford’s pardon of Richard Nixon—not mass defections from embittered Reagan loyalists.
Reagan was 65 in 1976, and he knew that he’d get one final shot at the presidency in 1980, whether Ford won or lost (the 22nd Amendment would have kept Ford from running again). But Reagan also knew that causing any trouble for Ford in the fall of ’76, and thus being blamed for electing Carter, would do his long-term ambition no good.
For his own good, Ronald Reagan didn’t make a fuss about not being on the ticket. For her own good, Hillary Clinton probably won’t either.