Obama, D-Ill., clinched the Democratic presidential nomination and immediately did the statesmanlike and street-smart political thing: He praised Clinton, D-N.Y., for running a strong race and making his campaign better. However, it is clear the Obama team would prefer to have Clinton on their side without offering her the vice presidential slot.
Keep dreaming, folks: You can't win without the lady.
Obama doesn't have to love Clinton to offer her the No. 2 spot on his ticket, and Clinton doesn't have to abandon her obvious seething resentment of the senator from Illinois to accept the offer. But for both of them, that ought to be the way to play it.
U.S. political history over the past 76 years makes perfectly clear what Obama needs to do: He needs to pick Hillary as his running mate. And the longer he delays -- or she refuses -- the more he will look like Hamlet, who could never decide about doing anything or, even worse, like Bambi, the scathing epithet attack-dog Republicans and Maureen Dowd have pinned on him.
For U.S. presidential candidates who succeed in co-opting their most dangerous challengers and giving them the No. 2 spot on their tickets go on to win in November -- often winning elections they otherwise would have lost. Candidates who fail to pick their strongest rivals usually go down to defeat, often by heartbreakingly narrow margins, in the presidential election.
Gov. Franklin D. Roosevelt of New York put Speaker of the House John Nance Garner of Texas on his ticket in the 1932 presidential campaign. He could not have won the nomination at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago that year without him. And Garner, as the leader and spokesman of the Scotch-Irish, heartland, rural Democrats who had followed William Jennings Bryan and William Gibbs McAdoo for so long, was crucial in healing the great East-West, rural-urban Scotch-Irish vs. ethnic immigrant splits that had torn the Dems apart during the 1920s. FDR consequently led a united party into the fall presidential campaign and he won.
So did Sen. John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts in 1960 when he picked Sen. Lyndon Johnson -- like Garner, from Texas -- as his running mate. The Dems once again needed a united party with the leader of the losing wing co-opted prominently on the ticket. And LBJ's support was crucial to carrying Texas -- there were later allegations the vote there and in Illinois was fixed. JFK couldn't have won without it.
Even Ronald Reagan, arguably the most successful and popular president since FDR, put his chief campaign rival, George Herbert Walker Bush, on his victorious ticket in 1980. Bush never came close to seriously challenging Reagan for the presidential nomination, and Reagan easily could have won without him. But like the canny old political veteran he was, he knew the basic need to unify and shore up his base before the fall campaign began.
Obama, who is no fool, knows that, too. And Clinton knows it as well. But party presidential nominees don't always get what they want. Reagan played at being Achilles sulking in his tent in 1976, clamoring and flatly refused to campaign for incumbent President Gerald Ford. Ford lost several states where Reagan was personally popular by close margins, and they tipped the balance in his defeat against Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter.
Sen. Teddy Kennedy, now a beloved Democratic icon, critically weakened Carter in 1980 against Reagan, and Pat Buchanan's insurgency against George H.W. Bush delivered a similar mortal wound to the incumbent president in his 1992 campaign against Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton.
Obama, therefore, cannot simply sit back and try to ignore a wounded, jealous Clinton if she ostentatiously sits back and refuses to bless his candidacy and actively campaign for him. She has clout among Hispanics, women voters and blue-collar Democrats that he desperately needs. He therefore must isolate her in the party and clearly establish himself as boss in his own back yard if he wants to win in November.
The consequences of Obama's failure to either co-opt or eliminate Clinton will be devastating for him if he cannot resolve the issue quickly. The damage was already being felt Wednesday. New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd sneered at Obama for being "Bambi" because he could not prevent Clinton from pouting on the sidelines.
If a liberal, pro-Democrat, Bush-bashing columnist like Dowd can write such devastating things about Obama in the main newspaper of the Empire State -- one of the core Democratic bastions in the United States -- what damage will he suffer in crucial swing states like Pennsylvania or Ohio, where he could not even beat Clinton in the primaries?
There is still plenty of time for Clinton to cut a deal with Obama and to start building him up instead of tearing him down. But if she continues to pout in her tent and do her own Achilles thing, Obama cannot afford to simply ignore her: That would hang the Bambi image on him that he must avoid at all costs.
"Co-opt Sen. Clinton's support if you can, but erase her if you must." That would certainly be Niccolo Machiavelli's advice to Obama. Pretending she's not there just won't cut the mustard.
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