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Mark Schmitt On The Unity Ticket

The idea of a Barack Obama-Hillary Clinton "unity ticket" has been floated quite a bit the last few days. But, seriously, is the idea any good? We asked a few friends of the magazine to weigh in. Here's Mark Schmitt, senior fellow at the New America Foundation.

There are fights within the Democratic Party that reflect deep structural and ideological rifts that, in turn, are embodied by individual candidates: Eugene McCarthy and Bobby Kennedy vs. Hubert Humphrey in 1968, George McGovern vs. everyone else in 1972, Ted Kennedy vs. Jimmy Carter in 1980. These breaches, because they went so deep, took a long time to heal, and a "unity ticket" might have helped.

But then there are fights that really have much more to do with the personal qualities and appeals of the candidates.  Such a fight can seem similar to a real breach, because the candidates do divide the electorate sharply along lines of class, race, ethnic background, education, gender, and age. But that doesn't mean that the Democratic electorate is inherently divided along those lines, or divided by other issues. If the candidates disappeared, so would the divisions. These have been two strong, appealing candidates, each of them attracting votes rather than repelling them (the staggering turnouts in the Democratic primaries, often approaching or even surpassing the total votes received by John Kerry in 2004, are proof), and who happen to have a natural appeal to different demographic groups. As they split the electorate almost evenly, passions rose higher, and accusations of racial insensitivity, sexism, elitism, and pandering grew louder. Major figures in the Democratic establishment could see their careers ending, while others would emerge to replace them. All this makes for ugliness.

But in two months, I suspect that these things will all be the equivalent of political trivia questions: What did former BET President Bob Johnson accuse Barack Obama of? Which informal Obama advisor referred to Clinton as "a monster," and in what newspaper? Those of us who know the answer will be shocked to recall how deeply immersed we were in them.

And that's why the "unity ticket," while not necessarily a bad idea, is fundamentally unnecessary. The Obama-Clinton divide will heal naturally; it does not require radical surgery. Clinton should be considered as one might consider any other candidate for the vice presidency: in terms of what she brings to the ticket and to the eventual presidency.

**Experience. Certainly Obama would be helped by someone who could balance his relatively short period in national politics with either length or breadth of experience: A stronger background on foreign policy and security, some experience as a governor or in the executive branch, or just a few more years in office would be helpful. Clinton certainly has somewhat more experience: She's lived in the White House, she's served four years longer in the Senate, she's clearly mastered military matters. But there are many other candidates who have at least as much direct experience, from the successful governors Janet Napolitano of Arizona and Kathleen Sebelius of Kansas, to Senators Joe Biden and Chris Dodd, or Evan Bayh--who at 52 has 22 years in public office--or Jack Reed of Rhode Island, a West Point graduate who recently made his 11th trip to Iraq.

**Ideological contrast. One could argue that Obama's liberalism needs a contrast, in a running mate from the slightly more centrist or conservative wing of the party. In many primaries, Clinton did better with more conservative Democrats, and the fact that more of her voters seem to express an intent to vote for McCain suggests that they are more conservative. Obama is in many ways the most plain-spoken liberal to win the Democratic nomination since Walter Mondale. But while Clinton is probably inherently more cautious than Obama, her record marks her as more conservative on only one issue, and that's the one on which she is most out of step with the vast majority of Americans--the decision to go to war in Iraq.  And yet, she still suffers under the reputation, developed during the 1990s, that she is some sort of quasi-socialist. That's the worst possible combination: perceived as more liberal than she actually is, while being demonstrably more conservative only on less popular points. Voters are clearly more comfortable with actual liberal policies than they are with the idea of liberalism, which is why Republicans will go after Obama's misleading rating as the "most liberal" senator rather than his actual issue position. Clinton does nothing to balance that perception, though there are several politicians who would: All of the successful governors are perceived as pragmatists, not ideologues. Bayh, Senator Jim Webb, former Senator Sam Nunn, and several others would be perceived as more moderate.

**Region or character type. The primaries created the idea--which would have seemed implausible a year ago--that Clinton is the champion of the white working class, particularly the white working class of Scotch-Irish descent in the Appalachian belt. Obama, meanwhile, has been characterized as the candidate of the McGovern coalition of the upper-Midwest and New England, of affluent college graduates and African-Americans. One could argue that the dream ticket fuses these two regional and socio-economic factions. But if they were not fighting with one another, Obama and Clinton would look a lot more alike as cultural and regional archetypes than different. Despite her legendary grandparents from Scranton, Pennsylvania, (I've got those, too--maybe I could be a working-class hero!), Clinton is really, just like Obama, a pure product of the sensible, reformist political culture of Chicago and the upper-Midwest; Terry McAuliffe's claim that you'll find her at the bar downing shots and beer is as implausible as it is an undesirable trait in a president. Several other prospects, such as Webb, Reed, or Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown, would legitimately be seen as fighters for the working class, offering a much more tangible balance to Obama's cool and slightly academic distance. 

There are some reasons that the "unity ticket" might be an actually bad idea, notably that a vice presidential candidate needs to be able to subsume his or her own ambitions and ideas for as many as eight years. Hillary Clinton subsumed her ambitions for the first 53 years of her life; there's no reason to expect that she should do so again. But even aside from that, the unity ticket is unnecessary, not only for the party and for Obama, but for Clinton herself. As one of the handful of senators who can automatically command national attention, she will be a central figure in the new era of liberal possibility that will begin in January.

Alan Wolfe: Using identity politics to move beyond identity politics.
Ed Kilgore: Obama should ask her, and she should accept.
Michael Tomasky: He can do better in both substantive and symbolic terms.
David A. Bell: Ten reasons not to pick Hillary Clinton as V.P.