I think that, as the writer of the following paragraph, I can legitimately claim not to be a Clinton hater:
I do not want Hillary Clinton to be our next President. But I feel for her. I don’t think she’d be a terrible President. I don’t think she’s a horrible person. She doesn’t give me the creeping horrors that she gives so many observers, particularly observers from the Right. (I don’t feel like scratching her face the way I do when I see John Edwards, for example.) Unlike some who have run – and won – she is not running out of vanity or the desire for honor, or out of obscure psychological motivations. She is a serious person who really believes she would make a difference to the country – a positive difference – were she the President.
That’s from this post, written a few days before Super Tuesday.
So: what does Obama do now?
Well, to start with, he should not put her on the ticket. The VP pick should, ideally, accomplish several, if not all, of the following objectives: reinforce the campaign narrative; strengthen the image of the nominee; bring in a valuable organization for GOTV or fundraising; win over an otherwise difficult-to-win constituency; retain a trusted counsellor; anoint an heir apparent.
A Clinton pick actively undermines the campaign narrative; weakens the image of the nominee; does not provide him with a trusted counsellor; and does not anoint an heir apparent. The only reasons to add her would be: for the Clinton “network” and organization, and to win over an otherwise difficult-to-win constituency. I don’t think Obama needs the network or the organization. That leaves one reason.
Obama had trouble, in differing degrees, with four constituencies who were loyal to Clinton in the primaries: women, older voters, Appalachian whites, and Hispanics. I don’t think Clinton helps materially with Hispanics. She could very well help with Appalachian whites, but I don’t think she’s the only pick who could do so. Ditto with older voters. And I remain unconvinced that Obama has a “problem” with women voters in a general election against McCain.
Indeed, the only problem Obama might have is if very active women voters who were Clinton partisans see him as having disrespected Hillary Clinton, and sit on their hands and refuse to campaign for him. To the extent that this is the case, the only person who can solve that problem is Clinton herself. To the extent that she refuses to do so, she’s making it plain that she would prefer to be a spoiler than to do what’s in the best interests of the Democratic ticket. I don’t think Obama can give in to that kind of blackmail without seriously wounding his candidacy, perhaps fatally. Clinton, of course, presumably knows that, which raises a real question of whether she’s trying to get herself put on the ticket, since public bullying is probably the worst strategy for achieving that aim.
Obama has a thorny problem to deal with, but a “dream ticket” probably isn’t the solution.
But he does need to focus on her constituency. Obama won the nomination on points, through superior organization, not by acclamation. The bandwagon only ever rolled in one state – Wisconsin. Clinton’s voters did not abandon her – indeed, they became more committed the more clear it was that she could not win by the rules. The most unskewed counting of the popular vote – including Michigan’s votes, but scoring “Uncommitted” for Obama, and including the estimates for caucuses in Iowa, Nevada, Maine and Washington that did not report actual numbers – gives Obama a margin of just over 50,000 votes, less than a quarter of a percent of the total number cast. The odds were that Obama would be the nominee after Wisconsin. There was really no more doubt at all after North Carolina. Since North Carolina, Clinton won a net margin of over 400,000 votes. South Dakota’s turnout was comparable to comparably-sized Delaware’s on Super Tuesday. Obama has won, but he has not won over. He needs to do that.
First, take a leaf from Clinton’s Senate campaign book and go on a listening tour. The Obama campaign’s theme has been, “we are the hope we’ve been waiting for” – a message of empowerment (it’s not that I’m going to save us; we’re all going to save us) but one that presumes a sale that isn’t closed (who are you to tell me that we’re a we?). And, indeed, Obama’s campaign has been long on speeches, even sermons, long on talking about the voters and their needs and wants, but short on creating the perception that the candidate hears the voters, and that we can hear them speaking through him. This is something Bill Clinton excelled at, and Obama needs to figure out how to do it a bit better than he has. A good start would be by humbling himself before the people. He does not have the option, as McCain does (and has been doing), of displaying his wounds like Coriolanus and asking for the people’s voices in recognition – but he does have the option of lending them his ears.
Second, reach out, publicly and ostentatiously, to Bill Clinton. President Clinton was the most successful Democratic leader of a generation. He is, more than anyone, responsible for the survival and rehabilitation of the Democratic brand in a hostile political context. The Obama campaign has, for understandable reasons given who they were running against, belittled the achievements of the 1990s. The time has come to stop that. Obama has, as well, projected a laudable self-confidence about his ability to triumph over the Republican “attack machine.” But it wouldn’t do him any harm to say that he could learn something from those who faced it before him.
Third, get together with the sisterhood. I don’t know if I’ve said this before, but Doug Kmiec would do well to admit that he has backed a ticket that will be absolutely uncompromising in its support for abortion rights. There is no chance whatsoever that Obama will make the slightest gesture in the direction of moderation on this question, and there is no chance that any appointments to the court will not be litmus tested on this question. Bank on it. He showed no inclination to do so before, and now he has powerful political reasons to be absolutely doctrinaire on this question. There are other places where he can bend – gun rights is, I think, the most likely and the most important – but not here. Yes, that gives a (mild) advantage to McCain on this question, but Obama cannot afford heterodoxy here. But this will not be enough to ensure that the sisterhood feels it has been respected. He’s going to need to give a big speech on feminist themes – and it’s going to be a tricky one for him. He’s going to need to meet publicly with women who are not already “on-side” and hear what amount to their demands. I’m not sure what the key gestures are going to have to be, but he’s going to have to make them. He needs these women in their battalions, in Florida, in Nevada, in Michigan, and across the country.
Fourth, make a VP choice that both complements and reinforces, thereby strengthening the narrative. I’ve made the case multiple times for Webb as the optimal choice. But Obama has, broadly, three directions to go with the VP choice if he wants to think about constituencies: he could focus on appealing to women, he could focus on appealing to Hispanics, and he could focus on appealing to downscale whites. I think the last is where he should focus most, but regardless of which constituency he focuses on he needs to make sure the pick both complements and reinforces. Picking Kathleen Sebelius, for example, reinforces – she was against the Iraq War, she’s a midwesterner, she’s “new politics” – but I’m not sure how she complements (except by being a woman, which is pretty much pure tokenism unless she’s perceived as a woman leader, which I don’t think she is). I know people think the VP pick doesn’t matter, but I disagree; it’s one of the few grand gestures a candidate can make, one of the few opportunities to profoundly shape the campaign narrative with a single act. Both Clinton and Gore chose in ways that helped them significantly when they most needed help. Dukakis and Dole made choices that were designed specifically to bridge perceived divides within the party, but wound up only highlighting deficiencies at the top of the ticket. This is a tricky pick, and it matters.
Fifth, promise her something. I think the VP slot would be a mistake. I don’t think the Supreme Court would suit her, nor do I think it would be politically wise. What about Secretary of Defense?