An air of inevitability about Clinton

In Focus: Politics

June 08, 2008|By PAUL WEST | PAUL WEST,WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF

The dream ticket is already looking like a nightmare for Barack Obama. But that doesn't mean it won't materialize.

Talk of a pairing with Hillary Clinton accelerated last week, just as Obama was putting her away at the close of the longest primary season ever.

Clinton's bid to claim a piece of the ticket was regarded as brazen by some experienced Democratic politicians. It could prevent another Democratic woman from eclipsing her and even sabotage Obama's chances of winning, advancing a Clinton comeback by four years, to 2012 instead of 2016.

Here's why: By advertising her interest in being on the ticket, Clinton may have made it more difficult for Obama to succeed in what is traditionally regarded as a nominee's first presidential decision - the selection of a running mate. If Obama picks a man, he'll dash the hopes of many Clinton supporters, whose disappointment over her defeat has been allayed by the hope of seeing her name on the ballot after all. Members of the party's largest voter group - women - might well view an all-male ticket as an insult in a year when a female candidate came closer than ever to winning the nomination. At the same time, Obama may now find it harder, if not impossible, to choose another woman, such as Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, without risking a backlash from Clinton supporters.

Opening a new rift within the party could be costly if the 2008 election is as close as the last two have been. The consequences of spurning Clinton could be less damaging than choosing her, though. Former President Jimmy Carter probably spoke for many last week when he called it "the worst mistake that could be made."

Since Clinton has advertised her desire, voters might conclude that Obama had been bullied into the decision, amplifying doubts about whether he has the strength of character voters want in a president. Other downsides to a Clinton-Obama ticket have been widely aired. They include:

Questions about former President Bill Clinton and his financial dealings, private behavior and seemingly ungovernable ego, which at the very least pose a distraction for Obama, as even prominent Clinton backers have acknowledged.

The prospect of energizing a demoralized conservative Republican base that loves nothing more than hating the Clintons, still the most polarizing couple on the national scene.

Perhaps most important, it would seem to undermine the theme of fundamental change at the root of Obama's message, yoking him to someone prominently identified with the political past he's running against.

Clinton isn't the only Democrat trying to become Obama's ticket mate, of course (just as some Republicans are quietly maneuvering to be John McCain's). Her effort, however, seems unusually overt and is attracting more attention than the others combined. On the same day Obama was locking up the nomination, Clinton declared that she was "open" to getting picked. Had she not wanted to put herself forward, she could have pulled back immediately. Instead, she let the idea gain momentum for two days. By the time her campaign issued a terse statement that she "is not seeking the vice presidency," the claim did not appear to square with reality.

Clinton hasn't interfered with growing efforts by her supporters to promote the idea of a Clinton-Obama ticket through petition drives and pressure tactics on Democratic politicians. A leading Clinton fundraiser, Black Entertainment Television founder Robert Johnson, was reportedly authorized by Clinton to launch a campaign. By letting her apparent desire for the job blow up into an international story, Clinton stole much of the public attention Obama expected to receive from securing the nomination. That only deepened the Obama campaign's extremely low regard for their counterparts in Hillaryland and, presumably, reduced the chances that Clinton would be picked.

And yet, there are key Democrats, including some inside the Obama camp, who see considerable merit in doing just that. "Does she have some baggage? Of course she does," said one, speaking on condition of anonymity. "But Obama should give her very serious consideration for several reasons." Among them: instant party unification and enhanced Democratic appeal on Election Day to women and Hispanics, key voter groups that Obama has struggled to attract. "Also, there is no sort of stature question about her ability to be president," said this Democrat, who worked against Clinton in the primaries.

Democratic strategist Steve Jarding, who was neutral in the primaries and has advised others now angling for the vice-presidency, such as Virginia Sen. Jim Webb, said Obama should run with Clinton. "I don't see anyone else out there who potentially brings more numbers of voters to the table in absolutely key states that he's going to have to have to win," Jarding said. Clinton's tenacity, experience, success in working with Senate Republicans and strong performance as a presidential candidate are assets that others can't match, he added.

The last president who looked beyond the divisions of the primary season and chose the runner-up as his running mate was Ronald Reagan in 1980. It wasn't the choice Reagan expected to make. He and George Bush had significant policy differences (Obama and Clinton don't), and Reagan regarded his rival as personally weak. But circumstances - including a bungled effort to forge a "dream team" of Reagan and former President Gerald R. Ford - plus the lack of a superior alternative forced Reagan's hand, setting in motion a chain of events that continues, with Bush's son in the White House.

At the moment, Obama aides say privately, there is no potential running mate who towers above the rest. They also indicate that picking Clinton is just about the last thing Obama would do - which it would be, if it turns out he's got no other choice.

paul.west@baltsun.com

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