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Dream On

The race for the Democratic presidential nomination may be over and Barack Obama may be its winner. But the Clinton family drama goes on. Early this week, as the final primaries took place and the mathematical reality of delegate counts became impossible to deny, Hillary Clinton let it be known that, yes, she'd consider accepting the vice-presidential nomination if Obama offered it to her. The statement gave instant political credibility to an idea already popular in some quarters. For many of Clinton's disappointed supporters, putting her on the ticket is a moral imperative: By virtue of her close second- place finish in delegates and popular votes, Clinton earned the vice presidential nomination. To more disinterested observers, choosing Clinton would represent a savvy strategic choice: During the primaries, her strongest support came primarily from those voters--the white working class and Latinos-- with whom Obama has famously struggled. Putting Clinton on the ticket, according to this argument, solves that problem. It is, say proponents of the scheme, a true Dream Ticket.

Or maybe a nightmare. It is difficult to dispute that Clinton satisfies the first and most important criteria for serving as vice president: the ability to assume the presidency in a time of crisis. Clinton has extensive experience in public life, having worked in both the executive and legislative branches; she is highly intelligent; she has an unrivaled grasp of public policy; and she has a long track record indicating adherence to basic principles of the Democratic Party. The now-legendary mismanagement of her campaign certainly raises legitimate questions about her leadership skills. But, within the party, the ranks of people with equal resumes are small. As Obama himself stated many months ago, when speculation about a Clinton-Obama ticket first broke into the national press, any Democrat would have to put Clinton on his or her short list of possible vice-presidential nominees.

But the ability to assume power in a crisis is a necessary condition for serving as vice president, not a sufficient one. It has been about three- quarters of a century since John Nance Garner, who served as vice president under FDR, called the job a "warm bucket of piss." The modern archetypes for a vice president are Al Gore and Dick Cheney. Publicly, both men were highly visible advocates for their respective administrations; privately, each was among his administration's most trusted and influential advisers. And one key factor in each man's success was the close working relationship he developed with his boss--a relationship based on trust and mutual respect. Given the campaign Clinton has run, it's virtually impossible to imagine a similar relationship ever developing between her and Obama.

Some might suggest that, if Clinton can help Democrats capture the White House, nothing else matters. But it's hardly self-evident that her presence on the ticket would accomplish that. One of the great errors pundits keep making is to take primary or caucus results as indicators of how people will vote in November. Yes, Clinton has attracted more support from Latinos and white working-class voters than Obama. But that doesn't necessarily mean that, in a contest pitting Obama against John McCain, her presence on the ticket would pull these voters back toward the Democrats. For one thing, while some Clinton supporters-- 22 percent, if you believe the latest poll--presently say they'd choose McCain over Obama, many of them are likely to reconsider once the policy contrast of the general election comes into view. It's safe to assume that most Clinton backers care about preserving abortion rights, fighting climate change, pursuing universal health insurance, and ending the war in Iraq. If so, they won't vote for McCain. And as for those Clinton supporters who pick candidates based on personal preference, not policy? Well, some--especially those motivated, consciously or subconsciously, by race--might indeed vote for McCain over Obama. But there's no convincing evidence that they would change their minds and back Obama if only Clinton, too, were on the ticket. If anything, it's more likely that Clinton's addition to the ticket would cost Obama votes. All the focus on Obama in recent weeks has led to an odd case of collective amnesia, in which supposed strategic experts have forgotten that Clinton remains one of the most polarizing figures in American politics--creating, among other things, a potential fund-raising boost for Republicans.

Nor is that the end of the political complications Clinton's presence on the ticket would cause. One of Obama's best political assets right now is the message of change he carries--the sense that his election turns the page on not just the Bush era but the Clinton era, as well. But, if Hillary is Obama's running mate, it will be that much more difficult for him to speak of a new moment in American politics. More likely, he would find himself constantly discussing the familiar litany of Clinton distractions, many of them involving the financial and personal activities of Bill--a topic barely scratched during the primaries but sure to be revisited if the Republican attack machine gets its opportunity.

One senses that Obama understands this--which may be why he has shown little interest in tapping Clinton. But, if Clinton pursues the idea anyway, or even allows her supporters to do so, it will leave Obama with an uncomfortable choice: select Clinton as a running mate or spurn her publicly in a way that really would alienate voters. Then again, maybe Clinton herself will take care of the problem. Hours after her conference call hinting at a vice-presidential slot, Clinton appeared before her supporters in New York City and delivered a speech now famous--and infamous--for its defiance. That defiance, she insisted, was not because of ego: It was because she believed in the causes her campaign had championed and the people who had rallied around her. Given the tone of that speech, not to mention the sometimes-destructive campaign Clinton has run, it's difficult to take those claims of selflessness seriously. But there's one easy way for Clinton to show that she really means it: to take herself out of the running for the vice presidency, thus giving the Democrats their best shot at winning in November.


Click for the next article in TNR’s Veeptacular. And for a full index of our 2008 v.p. coverage, click here.

By The Editors