The trap for a Clinton-Obama ticket

Reading time 5 min.

The contest for the Democratic nomination has entered a period of suspended reality. The next big vote, in Pennsylvania, is five weeks away – and is unlikely to affect the race much in any case. This agonising, drawn-out sequence of primaries is not in the end going to choose the nominee.

By Clive Crook

When it is over, Barack Obama will lead in elected delegates, but not by enough to settle the thing. The Democratic party’s unelected “superdelegates” will do that, quite possibly not before the party’s convention in August.

The Clinton campaign is already concentrating on making its best case to the superdelegates. For the moment, this means arguing that Hillary Clinton will be the stronger candidate against John McCain in November. Mr Obama and Mrs Clinton are both tied with Mr McCain in national polls – though these do not yet show the fall-out, if any, from the recent surge of interest in the racist demagoguery of Mr Obama’s spiritual mentor, Jeremiah Wright. Also, Mrs Clinton can argue that she has the edge in the swing states that the Democrats have to win.

Later, if she manages to eke out a lead in votes cast, she will bolster that argument with an impassioned line about the superdelegates’ duty to uphold the will of the people. (This is possible especially if the Florida and Michigan contests are rerun.) Of course, should Mr Obama hang on to his popular-vote lead (currently about 700,000), the will of the people will be his line and the Clinton team will challenge the legitimacy of the party’s electoral process.

This swirling uncertainty is the context in which Bill Clinton’s recent claim that a Clinton-Obama ticket would be unstoppable must be understood. It was an extremely shrewd political manoeuvre. It asserts a presumption, nothing if not bold, that Mrs Clinton is still the senior partner. It nominates Mr Obama as the Democrats’ presidential candidate in 2016 – and he is young enough for that to make sense. And it issues a summons, cynical as this may be coming from the Clintons, to party unity. This way, the Clinton campaign is saying, the party can come together, front both its favourite candidates (two for the price of one, three if you count Bill) and maximise its general election prospects.

If you were a superdelegate, this might seem an attractive proposal and it is likely to become more so as the weeks go by. To deny the superdelegates this possible escape from their dilemma, Mr Obama had to squash the idea flat and he has failed to do it. His instant response to Mr Clinton’s overture was to say such talk was “premature” – exactly what his opponent hoped he would say.

Shortly after, he mocked the offer by reminding the party that he was still the leader both in elected delegates and votes (it is telling that he had to do that) and by accusing the Clinton team of inconsistency – how can they say he is not ready to be commander-in-chief and yet that he would be a good vice-president? Fine, but that was a rhetorical rejoinder, not a decisive rejection.

As long as this possibility is entertained, it puts Mr Obama at a disadvantage. Paradoxically, it licenses Mrs Clinton to persist with her attacks. “It’s nothing personal. I’ve said I’m willing to have the man as my vice-president: all he needs is a bit more experience.” As the fight gets fiercer, the prospect of a negotiated settlement will seem all the sweeter to the party’s leaders.

Also, it weakens Mr Obama’s resolve by giving him an acceptable way to fail. This contest is all or nothing for Mrs Clinton – nobody even needs to ask whether she would be willing to accept the vice-president slot. Mr Obama will have other chances to be president and in low moments he may feel there are worse things in the meantime than being vice-president. Most important, it gives the Clinton campaign a chance to claim the high ground with the superdelegates. “We are willing to put this feud behind us and unify the party. He is not.”

Obama supporters argue that a Clinton-Obama ticket would be weaker than an Obama-Other candidacy in November. In fact, I think that is true. Mrs Clinton is a liability when it comes to attracting the votes of independents and wavering Republicans, not to mention getting out the conservative stop-Hillary vote. But it is striking that the two candidates have split the Democrats down the middle, each appealing very strongly to their respective slices of the party: black people, men, the affluent for Mr Obama; women and low-income white people for Mrs Clinton. The idea of rejoining these forces has an undeniable appeal – especially for the party grandees who will decide the outcome.

If Mr Obama surges back in Pennsylvania, all this will be moot. If Mrs Clinton wins comfortably there, as the polls say she will, I would hesitate to bet against a Clinton-Obama ticket.

More than anything, this is a tribute to her titanic will to win. Here is the oddest thing about this peculiar race. Totting up the arithmetic, almost every political commentator in the US regards Mr Obama as the favourite to get the nomination – while harbouring, it seems to me, an inner conviction that Mrs Clinton will somehow find a way to steal it. You cannot imagine her giving up, short of being bound, gagged and sedated.

As President Obama is inaugurated, she will be plotting new legal challenges. If wanting the job were all that mattered, she would win this summer, and in November, by a landslide.

Financial Times

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