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

Is A 'Unity Ticket' A Good Idea?

A TNR roundtable.

The notion 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.

David A. Bell, professor of history at Johns Hopkins University and a contributing editor for The New Republic:

10 Reasons for Barack Obama not to pick Hillary Clinton as his Vice President:

1. It's wrong to say that Hillary has survived the worst the Republicans have thrown against her. In a national election, the sort of attacks which had little traction in New York senate races and the Ohio or Pennsylvania primaries could well drag her--and Obama--down. Should Obama have to spend part of his presidential campaign defending the Clintons, of all people, when Travelgate, Whitewater, Vince Foster, the Lincoln Bedroom, Marc Rich, Norman Hsu, Paula Jones, Gennifer Flowers, Monica, and Bosnia all come oozing back up into our political life?

2. How can Obama possibly campaign as the incarnation of the future, and the repudiation of the Bad Old Politics of the Past, when he has Hillary standing next to him?

3. Dynasticism in a minor, vice-presidential key is still dynasticism, and the country is sick of it. Is John McCain going to pick Jeb Bush as his running mate? (and if it wasn't for the last name, he well might).

4. Bill. If Hillary, of all people, couldn't stop him from harming the campaign he was supposed to be helping, can Barack?

5. Hillary has simply gone too far claiming that Obama is unready to be president. Her lines will be flung back in her face--and his--endlessly by the Republicans, and in debates.

6. This seems to be one case that disproves the adage about keeping your friends close and your enemies closer. In 2016, after a second Obama term, Hillary will be nearly 70. Does anyone think she is going to be content to put her own ambitions aside until then, and be nothing but a good team player?

7. Why should Obama give up a chance to put someone with real executive experience on the ticket? This is a weakness of his, and Hillary will not help to address it seriously, despite her vaunted "35 years."

8. A great deal of the political fence-mending that he would accomplish by choosing Hilary could be done just as well by choosing her strong supporter Evan Bayh.

9. Hillary is not Lyndon Johnson. She probably can't bring him anywhere near the number of electoral votes that Johnson brought to the Democratic ticket in 1960 (she certainly can't steal Texas for him!).

10. The obvious, unfortunate, Unevolved Nation reason, namely that some voters will be comforted by a white male on the ticket. Should Obama pay attention to this factor? No. Will he? Good question.


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.

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, TNR contributing editor and professor of political science at Boston College:

I am for the dream ticket. This is the Democratic Party's year; why not take advantage of it by having the first African-American and the first woman as president and vice-president in our history? There was no more graphic illustration of the changing demographics of this country than those Republican debates: elderly white men with red ties, one droning on after the other. The oldest of those drones is now the Republican candidate for president. Obama and Clinton would not only beat him badly; they would attract future supporters to the Democratic Party in droves.

None of this ought to be said if Obama chose Clinton only because he is black and she is a woman. But these are the two most talented politicians the Democrats have, one, as it happens, adept at the high road, the other at the low. It is also the case that both have genuine leadership abilities. The Democrats could use identity politics to move beyond identity politics. The country would be better off for it.

The contest between Obama and Clinton created hundreds of thousands of new Democrats, raised huge sums of money from small donors, increased turnout in the primaries, and dominated the airwaves. It is energy that should be used, not wasted. And it would make Bill the equivalent of Lynne Cheney.

Ed Kilgore, managing editor of The Democratic Strategist, an online magazine:

There are a lot of obstacles to an Obama-Clinton "unity ticket." Maybe she doesn't want to be vice president. Maybe they or their staffs or their spouses can't get along. Maybe Clinton can't offer sufficient assurance of loyalty and subordination, or a practical plan to eat many unfortunate words she said about Obama during the primary competition.

But if these obstacles can somehow be overcome, Obama should ask her to run with him, and she should accept.

I know this is a deeply unpopular, even infuriating, suggestion to many Obama supporters who've watched the Clinton campaign savage their champion for many months. Indeed, some of them think the vanquishing of the Clintons from power in the Democratic Party is the whole point of the Obama "movement." Why, many ask, should Obama take on Hillary's "baggage" after finally defeating her at the cost of so much blood, sweat, tears, money, and approval-ratings points?

The answer is simple, and for me at least, overwhelmingly compelling. Right now the Democratic Party is deeply divided, as evidenced by the steadily rising number of Democratic primary voters threatening to take a dive in November. Those divisions are, in fact, John McCain's most important political asset. Yet they are not about ideology, or about policy issues, really; they are about these two Democratic politicians, and all the symbolic freight each has assumed. The easiest way, the fastest way, and the only sure way, to heal these divisions is to unite their sources on a single ticket.

Sure, many, perhaps most, disgruntled Clinton voters will "come home" in any event, and Obama could appeal to some vulnerable constituencies through a different choice for running-mate. But nothing quite scratches the itch like a unity ticket.

Would Hillary Clinton as a vice presidential candidate overshadow Obama? There's no reason to think that; his candidacy remains the big political story of the year. And let's have no illusions that if the Clintons are assigned a minor role in the fall campaign, they won't be a distraction. For one thing, the Democratic National Convention, no matter how well stage-managed it is, will be "about" Obama's narrow margin of victory and his and others' efforts to unite the party. A unity ticket will greatly enhance the positive side of that story. As for the much-cited idea that Hillary's presence on the ticket will "energize" conservatives, I think the events of the last few weeks have abundantly shown their willingness to whip themselves up in a hate frenzy towards Barack Obama as much as Clinton.

Symbolism aside, Hillary Clinton would bring some tangible political assets to the Democratic ticket. Even if you dismiss her relative strength in the primaries among white working-class voters, older voters, Appalachians, or Catholics as ephemeral or irrelevant to a general election campaign, there is simply no denying her personal and positive appeal to professional women and Latinos, with whom she has generated as much excitement as Obama has among younger voters and African-Americans. She would also bring some national security street cred to the ticket, which is an Obama vulnerability that I suspect is being underappreciated at the moment.

If the unity ticket is going to happen, it ought to happen as early as possible. We need to put the nomination contest behind us, and get on with the task of ending the Bush Era once and for all.

By David A. Bell, Michael Tomasky, Mark Schmitt, Alan Wolfe, and Ed Kilgore