The Veepstakes: Hillary Clinton

Any discussion about Barack Obama's potential running mates would be incomplete without Hillary Clinton. I first shot down the idea of an Obama-Clinton ticket back in February and have expressed reservations about it since then despite her obvious strength.

However, time has bolstered Obama's political footing. He is now in a significantly stronger position now than he was two months ago when Clinton was winning Pennsylvania and running up the score in West Virginia. Time has worked to Obama's benefit in that a lot of the hard feelings among Democrats have dissipated and the negative attacks have stopped. Now there is greater unity among the Democrats as they prepare for the fall campaign against John McCain. Hillary Clinton is out of the headlines, thus ceding the stage to Barack Obama. This lack of exposure is gradually weakening her leverage.

In addition to this, polling in various battleground states further weakens Clinton's hand. According to these polls, Obama is leading in Montana, Colorado, Virginia, New Mexico, Florida, and Indiana while trailing by fewer than 5 percentage points in Georgia, Mississippi, Alaska, and North Carolina. These states all voted for Bush in the 2004 election.

The longer Obama remains ahead of John McCain in these polls, the less likely he will need Hillary Clinton on the bottom half of the ticket. Clinton's strongest argument was that she could win the states Democrats needed to win in order to win the election. Also, by claiming that "she wanted her supporters to be respected," she was implying that her supporters were too angry to warm up to Obama and were ripe for McCain to harvest. Some of her supporters are indeed still upset about her defeat and, fairly or unfairly, are penalizing Obama for this. But the polls I cited earlier suggest that Obama is doing just fine with the support he currently has. This, of course, weakens Clinton's main rationale for her candidacy. Either Obama is overperforming, Clinton's supporters were bluffing, McCain is not able to capitalize on these supposed divisions among Democrats, or some combination of the three is happening.

In terms of the electoral map, Hillary Clinton could probably deliver Arkansas and make the neighboring states of Tennessee and Missouri more competitive. Bill Clinton could also be deployed to the Appalachian areas of western North Carolina, southwestern Virginia, central Pennsylvania, and southern Ohio and appeal to the rural Reagan Democrats there. Voters who have good memories of the economy during Bill Clinton's presidency may make voters in the economically depressed Midwest (e.g., Michigan and Ohio) a bit less likely to support John McCain as well.

In terms of her personal image, Clinton has rehabilitated herself in the eyes of Democrats who gained a lot of respect for her because of her grit and her ability to fight. Even Republicans concede that she is tough. She does not have a glass jaw and will not let any Republican attack go unanswered. If Obama is unable to sufficiently beat back Republican attacks with his traditionally soft approach, Clinton could easily clean up the mess because hand-to-hand combat is her political forte. So she could be an effective attack dog for Obama, which is probably just fine because that has traditionally been the role for potential vice presidents on the campaign trail. Of course, Republicans may criticize Obama for not reining Clinton in if she goes on offense, but any attempts to silence her would likely be met by anger from her supporters who are still sensitive about perceived sexism-related injustices Clinton (and themselves by extension) faced during the primary.

The negatives associated with Hillary Clinton are obvious and well documented:

1. The right despises her and her name on the ballot may do more to drive up Republican turnout than John McCain ever could. Democrats are more excited about this election than Republicans are, thus creating an enthusiasm gap. The prospect of the Clintons back in the White House could help neutralize this.

2. The issue of what to do with Bill Clinton would also loom over the campaign. Is Bill Clinton really disciplined enough not to throw the Obama campaign off message with his own histrionic antics? And is there any new Clinton baggage just waiting to bog Obama down? And would Obama's star shine more brightly than the former president's? Or his wife's?

3. Obama's message of "change" would become a bit diluted because of the "back to the future" element of including half of a political dynasty on his ticket. And this political dynasty's approach to politics is much more confrontational, thus further contradicting Obama's more genteel style.

Although Clinton could help him in the Upper South, Obama does not need Arkansas, Tennessee, or even North Carolina to win the election. Obviously, losing North Carolina would be deadly for McCain because if Obama wins North Carolina, McCain will absolutely have to win Michigan and defend Ohio. But because Obama is polling well enough in Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Ohio on his own, there is even less incentive for him to choose the junior senator from New York. Despite the recent lovefest in Unity, New Hampshire, Obama clearly does not want to pick Clinton and would like a convenient excuse to reject her. It's in his best interest to simply let things simmer for now though because that will buy him some time and increase the chances of Clinton disqualifying herself either through an unforced error or a new scandalous revelation. (Read Defusing the Hillarybomb for other options available to Obama.)

Despite all the obvious downsides, there is, however, one compelling reason for choosing Hillary Clinton. It has nothing to do with the electoral map or shoring up one's base:

Keep your friends close, but keep your enemies closer.

Hillary Clinton wants to be President. And while she may have sounded conciliatory in her concession speech and her remarks at her joint appearance with Obama in New Hampshire, the fact remains that she lobbed some real hardballs at Obama that flatly discredited his candidacy. Republican-leaning 527 groups are probably creating negative campaign ads using her words against him even as I type this post. Even though her campaign is over, Hillary Clinton is still Barack Obama's rival and must be dealt with carefully.

If Obama does not tap her to be his running mate, she will return to the Senate, where she has a good chance of becoming Senate Majority Leader. That means all legislation must go through her before it reaches Obama's desk in the White House. Would Clinton be so nefarious as to drag her feet when it comes to getting President Obama's agenda passed for the sake of driving down his approval ratings and fostering a sense of buyer's remorse, thus opening the path for her to take over in 2012? Or will she try to flex her political muscle by butting heads with Obama over legislation and dictating the terms necessary for her to shepherd bills through the upper chamber of Congress?

And what if Obama does not choose Clinton and he loses to McCain? Obama's stock value would plummet while Clinton's would soar on the winds of vindication. As a result, Clinton would emerge from the election more powerful than Obama. In 2012, Clinton could run as the "I told you so" candidate, thus reminding voters of the dashed hopes of Obama's failed campaign. Tapping Clinton for veep would help ensure that their political fates are intertwined even in defeat.

In short, the true advantage of a Clinton selection probably lies not in electoral viability this November (as the conventional wisdom indicates), but rather in fewer headaches after the election--win or lose.

Next installment: Mark Sanford

11 comment(s):

Anonymous said...

Obama the supposable great uniter- is uniting no one... with Solis and Richardson on his team. Obama needs the millions of Hillary Clinton Supporters in order to win the White House. Obama would be wise to appoint HRC as VP to get my vote... and millions of supporters like me. Do not underestimate how many Clinton supporters will not settle for less.
United we stand- divided we fall.

Brett said...

Unfortunately, the "Hillary Clinton" choice is seeming more and more likely, since the governors of Pennsylvania and Ohio have backed off, Wesley Clark is probably out because of the badly misinterpreted comment, and Jim Webb recently announced that he's not interested (although he wasn't as firmly negative as the Ohio Governor, so we don't know if that will stick). Who else does that leave other than Clinton? Sebellius in Kansas? Tim Kaine in Virginia? There's not a lot of remaining options that have received much publicity?

You are probably right on the risk of ending up with a rival Hillary Clinton as Senate Majority Leader in Congress (assuming she gets that soon; I haven't heard much about knocking Reid off that perch). Even just having her as a rival senator would be annoying; Bob Kerrey caused Bill Clinton a lot of grief when he was trying to get his economic plan passed in 1992-94.

Anthony Palmer said...


Here's my take on who's out of the game and who's left:

Wesley Clark has disqualified himself through no fault of his own.

Jim Webb has taken his name off the list.

Ted Strickland has taken his name off the list.

Mark Warner has taken his name off the list.

Kathleen Sebelius is still in.

John Kerry should not be on the list to begin with.

John Edwards should not be on the list to begin with, but is marginally better than John Kerry.

Joe Biden is still in, and he does not obfuscate about it.

Hillary Clinton is in, but not because Obama put her on the list.

Sam Nunn is in, but does he really excite Democrats?

Claire McCaskill is probably going to pull a Jim Webb. And besides, not just any Democrat could hold that Senate seat in Missouri.

Tim Kaine is in, but he's probably the least appealing of the three pols from Virginia, and that's saying something because competing with Warner and Webb is tough.

Eddie Rendell is in because he continues to dodge and demur when asked. Until he gives a firm "no way" like Webb did, he's still on the list.

Janet Napolitano is in, but Sebelius and McCaskill seem like better choices.

I'd say it comes down to Clinton, Biden, and Sebelius. I plan on writing about Biden after I finish my write-up on Mark Sanford. I speculated that Biden could make the shortlist when he dropped out of the race in January.



It seems strange to me that Democrats who remember Ralph Nader's run in 2000 would consider voting for McCain simply because they're angry that Clinton lost. Is that Obama's fault? What does he owe her, and why?

Torrance Stephens bka All-Mi-T said...

she is not a good choice

Brett said...

Clinton, Sebellius, or Biden, then. Biden's only real attraction is that he is a very experienced senator on foreign policy. Other than that, he has little appeal; he won't bring a state, and he has made some gaffes on the campaign trail before (that's how he got knocked out in 1988).

It's probably going to be Sebellius, if she agrees to it. Sebellius is a moderate western female Democratic governor, which is pretty much all the traits Obama could possibly want in a single running mate.

Brett said...

Correct that last part: ideally, it would be Sebellius. I have a sickening feeling that it probably will end up being Hillary Clinton, to please all those rather irritating Clinton cultists who would rather ruin the chance of Clinton's policies getting passed rather than not having the person they want in office.

S.W. Anderson said...

I wish I could be as confident of of burgeoning Democratic unity as you are, AP.

The first commenter above (Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, by chance?) is far from alone in her/his feelings. Second, there was that vote today OK'ing warrantless, mass snooping in what should be Americans' private communications coupled with retroactive immunity for some big telecomm outfits, protecting them from civil penalties for past complicity in violating people's privacy rights. Obama's willingness to go along is not being received well among some of his heretofore strongest backers.

I trust Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Florida and Georgia to provide Obama their electoral votes about as much as I trust George W. Bush. That's regardless of what polls say now and regardless of who is No. 2 on the ticket. I hope my skepticism proves unfounded.

S.W. Anderson said...

A few more observations on a very interesting, thought-provoking post.

IMO, the meme about Clinton undermining Obama's change theme is given too much weight. Look at it this way: HRC would be the first female vice president in U.S. history. That's change, big time.

Whether as V.P. or Senate majority leader, it would be in Clinton's best current and future interest to be the strongest player in Congress on Obama's team. The only way to burnish her reputation would be to deliver for him. Anything less would discredit her, do further damage to Congress' already badly tarnished reputation, hurt the Democratic Party and reflect poorly on her gender being entrusted with leadership posts.

If Clinton should become Obama's V.P. choice, the best thing Bill could do is fill her Senate seat as an appointee, running for re-election to it when the time comes. In the Senate, Bill Clinton could enjoy some limelight moments while making a real contribution in formulating strategy and dealing with complex matters his policy-wonk side is well suited to.

Bill Clinton would have to discipline himself to be more of a team player. I think he's capable of doing that.

S,W, Anderson said...

Something's seriously wrong if Gen. Wesley Clark really has no chance of being picked as Obama's running mate because of Clark's recent questioning of McCain's qualifications. And that something wrong doesn't rest with Clark.

Clark is fully qualified and exceptionally well suited to be president. If he was V.P. and a tragedy resulted in him stepping up, the country would be in really good hands. If Clark isn't picked to run with Obama, I hope he will run again in a future year.

Brett, I think you greatly underestimate Biden. There's more to him and his legislative record and skills than you give him credit for. He's not a static personality. Yes, he made a misstep a long time ago. He learned from it.

Biden is one of the sharpest tools in the Democratic shed, not only smart and wily, but with the knowledge that comes with years of experience and the wisdom that comes with age.

Sen. McCaskill is also plenty sharp, and bringing Missouri along would be a coup. However, picking McCaskill over Clinton would surely enrage Clinton's supporters and split the party. Especially so since McCaskill is only a first-term senator.

It's more wspecially so because if an Obama-McCaskill administration were to prove highly successful and popular, a definitely older Clinton would face really tough female opponent, if McCaskill were to run for president herself.

Regarding Edwards, unfortunately, there's a feeling he had his bite of the apple in '04 where running as No. 2 is concerned. He probably feels that way himself.

As I've thought more about Edwards in recent weeks, it occurs to me he needs to build himself a power base, in North Carolina and in the Democratic Party. He could do that by running for governor or running for the Senate again. I hope he do one or the other.

Thomas said...

We are having a little fun at the presidential candidates' expense over at my blog:


Anthony Palmer said...


I'll write about Biden next in my "Veepstakes" series. I disagree with some of what you wrote about him, but I'll save that for the actual post.



I am not so sure an Obama-Clinton ticket would satisfy the left. Liberals are blasting Obama for FISA. So would adding Clinton assuage them? After all, she voted for the war which helped make FISA necessary.

Is Bill Clinton even eligible to be a senator? If he worked his way up to Senate Majority Leader or Senate Pro Tem, he'd be in the line of succession to the presidency in the event of a catastrophe. New Yorkers might vote for him, but I think that might renew Clinton fatigue.

I still don't see Edwards being tapped for VP for the same reasons you cited. He has very short coattails.

And I don't think McCaskill will be tapped either even though she could be a good choice. Like James Webb, she is holding a senate seat that not just any Democrat could win. And the governor of Missouri is currently a Republican. For Senate Dems with dreams of making it to 60, that's not a risk they'd like to take.

Thanks for the comments.

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