Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Should Obama Ask Clinton to Be His Running Mate?

Should Barack Obama choose Hillary Clinton to be his running mate?

That's no doubt a question the Obama campaign is asking right now. And clearly, the Clinton campaign wants the New York senator to be asked to serve as Obama's veep.

That's part of why Clinton is continuing her campaign and why today she's asking fat cats and rainmakers for more money for pressing on.

Even if the Clinton campaign can convince the Democratic National Committee to change the rules of the nomination game, rules to which it once agreed, bringing delegates in from Michigan and Florida, Senator Clinton cannot wrest the nomination from Obama. Even if Obama were completely shut out, receiving zero delegates in all remaining contests, he still will have more delegates at the convention than Clinton.

I indicated last week that I thought that Clinton knew, at least at some level, that this race is over. I still believe that. So, why does Clinton insist on carrying her cadaverous effort forward, parading the corpse of her once seemingly invincible candidacy around for political insiders who know how to count?

One reason is the delusionary bubble created by adoring crowds. (And by how the math renders primary victories as meaningless, as is the case with Clinton's win yesterday in West Virginia.)

Study history or participate in political campaigns (I've done both) and you notice a common phenomenon, even among losing candidates--no, especially among losing candidates--at the ends of long campaigns. The phenomenon? Crowds grow and display increasing passion. The true believers, whether from denial, a fear of loss, or whatever, desperate for the victory they sense is slipping away, become more and more certain that their candidate will defy the odds and pull a Truman. It's a certainty they feel they must embrace; otherwise, the time, the money, the passion, and the commitment all seem for naught.

Even seasoned political insiders succumb to this phenomenon, especially the candidates who are at the center of it. In 1988, with just days left in his race against then-Vice President George H. W. Bush, Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis was interviewed by ABC's Ted Koppel. With all the polls showing that he was about to lose in a rout, what made Dukakis think that he had any chance of winning? Well, Dukakis said, the crowds were growing in size and enthusiasm. And, he said, he had enough time to change people's minds. No, Koppel told him emphatically, he had no time left; the campaign was over and Dukakis was going to lose.

My guess is that Clinton, convinced of the unelectability of Obama, a prophecy she is working mightily to fulfill, still, in spite of knowing the truth, harbors some faint hope of winning the nomination.

But, at a more realistic level, I think, Hillary Clinton wants to be a factor in Democratic politics. And, it seems to me, she wants to be Obama's vice presidential nominee.

If she really does see Obama as a naif, a dangerous neophyte, she might also harbor the thought that she can be his tutor and enjoy tremendous power in an Obama Administration.

But presidential nominees ask people to be their running mates usually for one big reason: The potential vice presidential candidates compensate for their weaknesses.

Does Hillary Clinton do that for Barack Obama? I don't think so. I wrote about this back in March:
So, how likely is it that once one of them has the Democratic nomination for president, that Obama or Clinton will ask the other to become their running mate?

There is a particular sense to it. Such marriages of convenience between the numbers two main contenders for their parties’ nominations are thought to unite the parties and to shore up whatever perceived deficiencies exist in the top candidates with the strengths of their chief rivals.

In 1960, John Kennedy reassured a Southern region, traditionally Democratic but skeptical of his Roman Catholic faith, by asking Lyndon Johnson to be his Veep.

In 1980, after they sometimes seemed openly contemptuous of one another in their competition for the Republican nomination, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush patched things up to make up their party’s ticket...

For Obama, having Clinton onboard is too risky.

Several reasons. First, she is the most polarizing political figure in the United States. By most accounts, she has a 48% disapproval rating, a far larger figure for anyone ever nominated by a major political party.

On top of that, Obama’s stock in trade is “change.” No matter how hard she tries to package herself as the candidate for change, Clinton represents for many Americans the same old “trash and burn” politics of character assassination practiced by our two most recent presidents, one named Bush and the other named Clinton. Senator Clinton herself has seemed to practice that questionable art throughout this process, particularly in recent weeks when, desperate to catch up to Obama, she has gone deeply negative.

Obama’s greatest weakness entering the fall, especially if the economy improves, will be national security. Few Democrats will be able to offer credentials in this area comparable to those of John McCain, a military veteran and one who has established what I would regard as limited bona fides in this area over a period of decades. (I say “limited” because, after all, McCain has never commanded military personnel, never been an ambassador, never worked at the State Department in a crisis situation, never been president. It’s hard to get national security experience apart from such circumstances.) And despite the now-famous “It’s three-o’clock in the morning…” Clinton TV ad, she is no more credentialed in this area than Obama.
Some are arguing that Obama needs to get the so-called "Clinton Democrats" with him for the fall campaign and that the best way to do that is to ask Hillary Clinton to be his running mate.

But there's another word for the Clinton Democrats: Democrats. They are the base of the base, Democrats who will vote Democratic no matter what.

If the Democratic Party's nominee in 2008 cannot count on the automatic support of nearly all who consider themselves Dems, there is something seriously wrong with the Democratic brand. The current president and his policies are repudiated by 70% of the electorate, his policies anathema to Democrats of all stripes. Democrats are likely to vote for the Democratic nominee this fall, no matter who that nominee is.

What Barack Obama needs to do is expand his party's base and he needs to assure more conservative voters in the general electorate, especially those interested in national security issues, that he is a safe choice for the presidency.

That's why I think that Chris Cilizza's suggestion that the Obama campaign is looking at former Georgia senator Sam Nunn for vice president is so intriguing. Nunn can be classified as a "conservative Democrat," a reputation burnished by his time as chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

In some ways, Clinton and Obama have had the same deficiencies as candidates for their party's presidential nomination. Each is relatively inexperienced. Each is perceived, by the general electorate, if not by Democrats, as tending toward elitism. Neither has national security experience. Neither has administrative experience. These are their weaknesses in going into the fall. For Obama to add Clinton to his ticket only doubles his troubles, making growing his base and thereby, increasing his chances of victory, more problematic.

A running mate like Nunn or some other more moderate Democrat with strong national security credentials would more readily compensate for perceived gaps in the Obama resume and boost his prospects for victory in November considerably.

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