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Obama-hillary: A Dream Or A Nightmare?

I am not going to get into the game of saying whom Barack Obama should choose to be his vice-presidential nominee. I am chastened from having argued for John Kerry to pick John Edwards in 2004. And I am not going to say whom he shouldn't choose either. But I want to suggest that there are pitfalls to his endorsing the "dream ticket" of himself and Hillary Clinton, which prominent Clinton supporters like Diane Feinstein are promoting.

There are two arguments for Obama choosing Clinton: one is plausible; the other is bogus. The plausible argument is that by choosing Clinton, Obama would create internal unity within the Democratic Party and lay the basis for an amicable convention and an enthusiastic campaign in the fall. Clinton might also bring money, although she also brings debts. The importance of internal unity cannot easily be dismissed: it helped the Democratic ticket in 1932 and 1960 and the Republican ticket in 1980. But unless the party is facing a bitter split--such as it did in 1972--it is not necessarily a decisive consideration.

The second argument is that Clinton would bring voters and states to Obama that he would otherwise have difficulty winning. Obama was strong among college-educated whites and African-Americans; she was strong among Latinos, Asians, seniors, and, of course, white women. He was strong in "greater New England" from Maine to Minnesota to Oregon and in the Deep South; she was strong in the border South, the industrial Midwest, and in Florida. Blogger Chris Bowers puts this halcyon vision of complementary strengths together in a "combined Clinton and Obama map" showing Obama/Clinton winning 300 electoral votes, John McCain 152, with 86 electoral votes still up for grabs.

I don't find these kind of demographic and geographic arguments persuasive. First, you have to take Hillary Clinton's showing in the recent primaries in states like West Virginia and Kentucky or in the opinion polls with a grain of salt. She is benefitting from inattention to her flaws--the spotlight turned to Obama after the Ohio primary--and by an anti-Obama vote among white working class voters. If she were the nominee, she would have as much, or almost as much, difficulty winning over white male working class voters as he has had. It's very hard to imagine, for instance, that she would win a state like West Virginia on her own--no less bringing it into Obama's column when she is only his vice presidential nominee. The fact is that I can think of only one state that Clinton might bring that Obama couldn't win on his own. And that's Arkansas with six electoral votes.

I have similar doubts about Clinton's demographic clout. Obama should be able to win white women voters on his own. These voters are least likely to have racial qualms about Obama and most likely to take Democratic arguments about the economy seriously. Obama desperately needs help among white working class males, Latinos, Asians, and senior citizens, but I am not sure he will get that much from having Clinton on the ticket as vice-president. The only recent example of a vice-president who may have helped bring demographic groups to a ticket is George H.W. Bush winning over some Eastern and Midwestern upscale moderates and suburbanites for Ronald Reagan. Perhaps, Clinton could attract Jewish and senior voters in Florida, but I am not convinced that as a vice presidential candidate she could do this.

There is one added point about vice presidential candidate: they should not overshadow or turn negative attention on the presidential candidate. Obama wants the race to be about his virtues and McCain's vices. In the past, presidential candidates have been seriously damaged by vice-presidential choices that became the focus of scandal or doubt--George McGovern's choice of Tom Eagelton in 1972, which ended any lingering hope that he could even compete; Gerald Ford's choice of Bob Dole in 1976; Walter Mondale's choice of Geraldine Ferraro in 1984; and of course George H.W. Bush's choice of Dan Quayle in 1988, from which only Michael Dukakis's political ineptitude and Lee Atwater's genius rescued him.

I don't mean to equate Hillary Clinton with Dan Quayle. Clinton would bring statute and credibility to a presidential ticket. Like Al Gore in 1992, she would be seen as a capable replacement for the president. But she would also bring the baggage of the Clinton years and Bill Clinton as well. She would provoke questions about how she, Obama, and Bill Clinton could co-exist on Pennsylvania Avenue. Would we have a co-co-presidency? Potential post-presidential scandals involving Bill Clinton, which the Obama campaign was loathe to broach, would certainly be aired by the Republican opposition. These could prove to be a very damaging distraction to Obama.

These, then, are pitfalls. They are not conclusive arguments against Hillary Clinton being nominated as vice-president. One must consider the alternatives, and it may turn out that the net advantages of nominating her outweigh the advantages of nominating anyone else. The internal unity that the ticket might bring; Clinton's credibility as a future president; and the sheer public excitement of seeing these two antagonists joined together might win the day for Clinton. But I hope that Obama is fully awake when he assesses the desirability of this "dream ticket."