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Funny Games

In the wake of her victories in Ohio and Texas, Hillary Clinton and her revitalized campaign are feeling bold. Knowing they would need to take risks and try to capitalize on the momentum they gained from those March 4 victories, Team Clinton chose to reframe the race as one their candidate ultimately will win, and they did so by changing how they talked about the two other candidates still in the running for the Oval Office.

On CBS’s “The Early Show” the morning after her victory speech, Clinton responded to a question about her and fellow Senator Barack Obama running together, saying: “That may, you know, be where this is headed, but of course we have to decide who’s on the top of ticket. I think that the people of Ohio very clearly said that it should be me.” The following day, she told a group of reporters that “since we now know Senator McCain will be the nominee for the Republican Party, national security will be front and center in this election. We all know that. And I think it’s imperative that each of us be able to demonstrate we can cross the commander-in-chief threshold.” She then alluded to a potential Clinton-McCain match-up in the fall, boasting that “both of us will be on that stage having crossed that threshold. That is a critical criterion for the next Democratic nominee to deal with.” For good measure, her husband, former President Clinton, suggested that the complementary demographic draw of each candidate--she with female, older, working-class and rural voters; he with male, African American, urban, and upscale voters--would be “unstoppable.”

What is the Clinton camp doing? Are they being dangerously presumptive by suggesting that Obama, who leads the Democratic nomination contest in pledged delegates and the popular vote, should run with her? Or is there a method to their scenario-making madness?

Let’s begin with an honest observation: Any rookie senator who managed to get elected vice president of the United States by the tender political age of 46 would be several rungs ahead of almost every other politician climbing the Beltway’s electoral ambition ladder. Three months ago, before the first presidential primary contest, or three years ago, when he was first sworn into office in the Senate, it would have been no insult to suggest that Barack Obama would make a fine candidate to replace Dick Cheney and become America’s 47th vice president.

But for Clinton to suggest Obama would make a great vice presidential running mate now--with but 10 non-Florida-or-Michigan Democratic state primaries or caucuses remaining on the nomination calendar--comes across as a partly-insulting, partly-desperate maneuver designed not so much to challenge Democratic voters’ notions of Obama’s inevitability, but to throw the Obama campaign off-kilter. Whatever the intent, Obama used the statements as an opening to strike back.

“I don’t know how somebody who is second place is offering the vice presidency to the person who is in first place,” Obama told a Columbus, Mississippi, audience Monday afternoon--comments that were carried live on television and rerun repeatedly on the political shows. He continued:

“If I was in second place I could understand it. But I’m in first place right now. ... I was trying to explain to somebody a while back about the ‘okey-doke.’ It’s when somebody’s trying to bamboozle you, to hoodwink you. They are trying to hoodwink you.”

Obama proceeded to question Clinton’s paradoxical suggestion that he was not commander-in-chief material and yet somehow worthy of being a heartbeat away from the Oval Office as her vice president. “If I’m not ready, how is it that you think I should be such a great vice president? Do you understand that?”

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi does not. “I think that the Clinton administration [sic] has fairly ruled that out by proclaiming that Senator McCain would be a better commander-in-chief than Obama,” scoffed Pelosi, a sour look on her face as she spoke to a Boston television reporter. “I think that either way is impossible.” Team Obama also reacted to the insinuation that their candidate was better suited for the bottom of the ticket with dismay. “Clearly it was more of a ploy on their part than a sincere gesture,” Obama strategist David Axelrod said during a media call on Tuesday afternoon. “I was surprised yesterday, after a whole weekend of pushing the idea, when Senator Clinton remarked that [the Clinton-Obama scenario] has taken on a life of its own. Not really--it took on a life that they gave it.”

OK: So Obama, his advisers, and even the impartial, highest-ever ranking female member of Congress all find the Clinton-Obama ploy a bit puzzling. But does that make it a bad move for Team Clinton? Maybe not.

For one thing, it allowed the Clinton team to yet again raise doubts about Obama’s readiness. Even when trying to explain the apparent contradiction of Clinton saying Obama is not commander-in-chief ready and yet suitable to be one heartbeat away from the Oval Office as her vice president, campaign spokesman Howard Wolfson was able to fudge the question while raising concerns about Obama’s credentials yet again. “Senator Clinton will not choose any candidate who has not at the time of the choosing, passed the national security threshold--period,” said Wolfson. “But we have a long way to go between now and [DNC convention site] Denver, and it’s not something that she’s prepared to rule out at this point. But certainly anyone who’s chosen as vice presidential candidate needs to be prepared to be commander in chief.”

Second, the ploy created another chance to throw Team Obama off its game. Prior to his comments on Monday, it appeared to be working; even if with a heavy dose of incredulity, the Sunday talk shows nevertheless chatted up the notion of Clinton-Obama as a dream ticket. Obama’s comments in Mississippi on Monday reflected a confident, even whimsical attitude about the matter, and nobody on the campaign swallowed the Clinton campaign’s baited hook either to suggest or dismiss the idea of an inverted, Obama-Clinton ticket. Still, the national media continued to repeat the Clinton campaign’s overarching critique that the Illinois senator’s problem is not so much that he’s black but that he’s green, which can only frustrate their efforts to deliver a new message each day.

Which leads to the third and final benefit: In case you didn’t notice, the two surefire Obama wins, in Wyoming and Mississippi, which had the potential to quickly drown out the comeback image the Clinton campaign wanted to project following their March 4 victories in Ohio, Rhode Island, and Texas, mostly got lost. The media did not blow past the Wyoming and Mississippi results, but far more attention seemed directed at the controversies Team Clinton manufactured in the past week. Whoever is more ready to lead on Day One, this week provided a powerful reminder that Clinton’s media team still knows how to dominate the news cycle for a few days when they need to.

Thomas F. Schaller is associate professor of political science at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and author of Whistling Past Dixie: How Democrats Can Win Without the South.

By Thomas Schaller