You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Michael Tomasky 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 Michael Tomasky, editor of Guardian America.

A part of me has lately warmed somewhat to the idea of Barack Obama asking Hillary Clinton to join him as his running mate. But on balance I still think he can do better in both substantive and symbolic terms.

The case for the unity ticket is pretty obvious and is implied in the adjective. Ed Kilgore made the case well here yesterday, and it's an argument worth taking seriously, which is why I've come around to it a little. And yet. ...

Actually there are several and yets. Number one: Substantively, something tells me that Vice President Clinton couldn't work very well with President Obama. She'd always be thinking, "Well, I'd have done it this way." She would demand, because of her stature, some kind of major portfolio. Her track record with major portfolios is other than encouraging.

And if Mr. Clinton as First Husband seemed problematic, what of him padding around the Naval Observatory? A former president married to a current president would at least mean that the two were working more or less as a team. A former president married to a current vice president who really thinks she should be president creates the potential for way too much mischief that could undermine the president.

Back around 1999 and 2000, when Rudy Giuliani's aides were floating the idea that he'd be a superb vice presidential choice for a GOP nominee, Al Sharpton was asked to comment on the prospect and said something like: Whoever hires Giuliani as his vice-president better also hire a food-taster. This wouldn't be that bad. But let me put it this way: If I were Obama, I'd try to avoid general anesthesia for the duration of my presidency.

Okay, back to politics. One problem is that I think a Clinton choice would be aimed solely at Democrats. It would be popular among them, but what about non-Democrats? Let's note something that's been little remarked upon so far this season. People keep talking about the stunning turnout in these primaries, and, for primaries, this has surely been the case. About 33 million people have voted.

But how many people voted in the last general election? Around 122 million. With interest seeming higher this year, and if Obama can indeed register many new voters, there is every reason to think that 100 million more people will vote on November 4 than have voted cumulatively over the last 18 weeks. Hillary on the ticket would clearly go down well among a large majority of the 33 million who've voted. But what about the other 100 million? How would putting Hillary Clinton on the ticket strike them?

It would depend of course on who they are. She has performed reasonably well among independents, especially more recently, so maybe this is a false alarm. But I suspect that by and large, her popularity is limited to Democrats. Which means I'm not sure she'd help in the traditional way vice presidential candidates are supposed to help.

And it's possible she could even hurt. If she'd been the nominee, or if she still somehow manages to become it, we can be certain that many millions of conservatives would come out to vote against her. They would not do so in anything like similar numbers if she were merely the bottom half of the ticket. But some number would. She could serve as a sort of "tipping-point" of negative motivation for conservatives. That is, Obama combined with X--Sam Nunn, say; and he's not my candidate, but I mean that kind of person--would be bad from the conservative point of view. But an Obama-Clinton ticket would be an out-and-out crisis. Obama has enough of his own problems.

Finally, I don't think she makes up for Obama's weaknesses as well as some other possible choices would. His biggest substantive problem against John McCain is going to involve proving gravitas on national security and the fight against terrorism. Clinton has of course taken steps to shore up her national-security credentials over the years, but she doesn't "signify" national-security toughness in the minds of swing voters. Additionally, I think I'd very much prefer that his vice presidential nominee not have supported the war in Iraq. A pro-Iraq war vice-president could weaken the president's hand domestically in trying to resolve the situation.

Obama does have solemn work to do in courting and persuading not the Clintons themselves but her voters. He will need to be creative and aggressive in reaching out to them and being genuine to them, and his campaign needs to take this very seriously. But I think it can be done via avenues other than offering her the vice-presidency. I have a preferred choice, which I'll reveal with home-field advantage over at the Guardian when the time is right. I wouldn't be hostile to his selecting Clinton, but I think it brings more minuses than pluses.

*Because of an editing error, this piece was originally missing the last two paragraphs.

Alan Wolfe: Using identity politics to move beyond identity politics.
Ed Kilgore: Obama should ask her, and she should accept.
Mark Schmitt: The party doesn't need that much repairing.
David A. Bell: Ten reasons not to pick Hillary Clinton as V.P.