August 19, 2008
The Lingering What-If Question: Clinton?
By PATRICK HEALY
No power brokers in the Democratic Party are openly campaigning for Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton as their vice-presidential nominee this year, and even Mrs. Clinton's closest aides have stopped talking her up. Yet privately, some Democrats continue to see her as exactly the partner that Senator Barack Obama needs.
Clinton supporters have tried to make this point in recent weeks, winning language in the party's convention platform that acknowledged Mrs. Clinton's history-making candidacy, and praising her as a smart, seasoned policy wonk who could add ballast to Mr. Obama's message of hope and change.
Indeed, a recent New York Times/CBS News poll of convention delegates found that 28 percent preferred Mrs. Clinton for vice president "” by far the largest bloc supporting a candidate. (More than a third offered no opinion; 6 in 10 of Clinton-pledged delegates wanted her, but only 3 percent of Obama delegates named her.)
"I've gotten literally hundreds of letters over the last week from women saying they would still love it if she were the nominee, or if he would pick her," said Geraldine A. Ferraro, a Clinton supporter and the only woman to be on a major-party ticket, as the Democratic vice-presidential nominee in 1984.
Now if only the two former rivals could get past ... oh, where to begin?
Think back to high school: In interviews on Monday, Clinton aides said they thought Mr. Obama did not like Mrs. Clinton. Clinton aides also said they thought Mr. Obama thinks Mrs. Clinton does not like him. And, like him or not, she is skeptical that he can win, her aides continue to say. Bottom line, chemistry might be a problem here.
While Mrs. Clinton, as running mate, might shepherd her blue-collar supporters in Ohio and Pennsylvania to the ticket, her earlier criticisms of Mr. Obama before those same voters might undercut a unity message. And what her fans see as "seasoned" experience is what many Obama supporters rejected during the primaries as "old Washington tactics," a phrase that Mr. Obama has used to describe Clintonian politicking.
The Obama camp would also have to figure out former President Bill Clinton's role in the months and years to come "” a tricky task, perhaps, given that the arrangement of his speaking role at the convention was a protracted, somewhat clumsy affair.
"There's a case for Hillary to be on the ticket, but the real question is, Is Bill a voice for the campaign and the administration, and what do you do about disclosing all of the donors to his foundation and his library?" said Robert Shrum, a veteran strategist of Democratic campaigns, referring to donor lists that the Clintons would not release during the primaries.
As for Mrs. Clinton, she is increasingly looking at the advantages of staying off the ticket, whether to run again in four or eight years or to capitalize on her presidential run to become an enduring national voice for women and working-class Americans.
"Picking her would have a groundswell impact on Democrats, but not picking her will leave her to have a new role leading on her issues "” and supporting Barack for president," said Alan Patricof, a longtime fund-raiser and friend of the Clintons.
An uninformed observer could be forgiven for assuming that next week's Democratic convention in Denver was an Obama-Clinton affair: Michelle Obama speaking on Monday night, Mrs. Clinton on Tuesday, Mr. Clinton on Wednesday and Mr. Obama on Thursday. Women's groups are also planning a parade and rally in Mrs. Clinton's honor for next Tuesday in Denver. (A Clinton spokeswoman said Monday that she did not know whether Mrs. Clinton had been invited.)
If Mr. Obama does not select Mrs. Clinton, this four-night lineup will simply serve as another reminder that steps are needed to heal the wounds of the long primary season fight.
"I think the convention will help bring the wings of the party together, especially the fact that Senator Clinton's name will be put in nomination for a roll-call vote; that will make a big difference," said former Gov. Tom Vilsack of Iowa, a Clinton supporter. "As for picking Senator Clinton as vice president "” that's Senator Obama's decision."
That last line has been the official Clinton talking point this summer; even Ann Lewis, Mrs. Clinton's former spokeswoman and one of her most unabashed champions, declined to comment on Monday about whether Democrats still wanted Mrs. Clinton as the running mate.
While never the most subtle bunch, Mrs. Clinton and her aides have maintained a low profile this summer, given that campaigning outright for the vice presidency has rarely paid off. Recently, as it became clear that Mr. Obama was nearing his choice, Mrs. Clinton's aides stopped talking publicly about the vice presidency altogether.
Mr. Obama has given little indication that he is preparing to pick her "” even though, her supporters note, she could help him in swing states and with key blocs of voters, and she could help raise millions of dollars. One donor to Mrs. Clinton attended a recent Obama fund-raiser in New York that netted about $500,000; if Mrs. Clinton had been the headliner, the donor wagered, it would have reaped $1 million.
Some Democrats do not rule out the possibility that Mr. Obama and Mrs. Clinton could be playing it supercool, only to increase the splash of seeing Mr. Obama, the junior senator from Illinois, reach out to his old bÃªte noire, Mrs. Clinton, the junior senator from New York, to become the first black man and the first woman to seek the White House as nominees.
"If he determines that Hillary after all is the best choice to help him to win and to govern," said Dan Gerstein, a Democratic consultant in New York, "they are capable of pulling off what would be the greatest head fake in American political history."
Dalia Sussman contributed reporting.