US Campaign Analysis Clinton or Obama? Why Not Both?

Conventional wisdom says that candidates for the White House should choose their opposite as a running mate. But with both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama generating excitement among Democrats, why not put them on the same ticket?

By Peter Ross Range in Washington

Do we really have to choose between the two?

Do we really have to choose between the two?

This week’s nasty debate in South Carolina between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama seemed to prove one thing: The two candidates are so hostile to one another that they could never run together on a single ticket, Clinton for president and Obama for vice-president. Or could they?

True, Clinton and Obama seem to have hit bottom in personal terms. The taste of early victory, as well as of defeat, is driving each of them to personal extremes. Clinton accused Obama of selling out to a “slum landlord,” though he worked only five hours in his life on that man’s account (before it was known that he might be criminally indicted). Obama accused Clinton of selling out American jobs when she served on the board of mega-retailer Wal-Mart. But that was in the 1980s before Clinton became First Lady in an administration that helped create 20 million new jobs in the 1990s.

Tuesday night’s debate was not a pretty sight. But in politics, as the Americans say, a week is a lifetime. Obama will probably win this Saturday’s vote in South Carolina, creating a 2-2 tie with Clinton in primaries won. That will leave the Democrats in the happy position of still not knowing who their presidential front-runner is, and leave plenty of time for the candidates to kiss and make up if, as many expect, the nomination remains undecided even after the mega-primaries on Feb. 5 when 22 states vote on who they want to be the Democratic nominee for president.

The hostility is, however, only one factor making many observers doubt the plausibility of a Clinton-Obama ticket. Conventional wisdom requires that a presidential candidate choose a running mate who is his (or her) diametric opposite. In 1960, John F. Kennedy, the Northern liberal, chose Lyndon B. Johnson, the Southern conservative. In 1976, Southerner Jimmy Carter chose Midwestern liberal Walter Mondale. In 1980, the rough-hewn Californian Ronald Reagan, chose smooth New England gentry George H. W. Bush, the current president’s father.

Reinforcing Prejudices

The other chief argument against the Clinton-Obama ticket is that it asks American voters to do the unthinkable: elect the first woman president and the first black vice-president in a single vote. Their ticket would pit two minorities-- women being seen as minorities in political discourse -- against a majority ticket. Having a woman and a black on a national ticket, goes the thinking, would simply reinforce prejudices against both, dooming the pair.

Finally, there’s the personal thing. Many believe that by the end of the primary season, Hillary and Barack won’t be able to stand each other, much less link arms in a proud march toward the White House. They may already be at that point, what with a recent spat over Hillary’s remarks about Martin Luther King and an ad by Obama supporters in Nevada suggesting that Clinton is prejudiced against Latino voters.

But all these objections overlook several things. First, the mold of choosing one's opposite for a running mate has already been broken. In 1992, Bill Clinton, the bright young Southerner, chose another brainy young Southerner, Al Gore, as his ticket mate. Together they generated a critical mass for renewal and change that overwhelmed the old school ticket of Bush and Dan Quayle.

Second, the idea of choosing two minorities at once overlooks several realities. The first is that women, while once treated as minorities in their struggles for equal rights, are no longer seen that way. After all, not only is the population slightly more female than male, but the voting populace is even more so. In the Iowa Caucus, women represented 57 percent of the turnout; in the primary in New Hampshire, 59 percent. Whatever lingering prejudices exist among male voters against voting for a woman seem to be more than outweighed by the enthusiasm of female voters for Clinton’s candidacy. Clinton's result among New Hampshire women was 17 percentage points higher than among men. In short, her gender is a net plus, not a net minus.

Outweigh the Drag of Bigotry

As for Obama, a great deal of the country has gotten beyond race and racial politics -- though not all of it. The question is whether the obvious enthusiasm for him among young voters -- turn-outs of those under-30 in Iowa and New Hampshire were unprecedentedly high -- can outweigh the drag of voters who simply will not vote for a ticket that includes a black man. So far, the Obama groundswell is impressive and growing, a replay of the online enthusiasm for Howard Dean four years ago. Driven by the passionately committed -- and well-financed -- support of the sophisticated and influential blogosphere, Obama’s White House run (even as number two on the ticket) ensures continued involvement of the party’s left wing even if their less-than-favorite candidate Hillary Clinton leads the way.

As for Hillary and Barack hating each other too much to form a joint ticket, there is a precedent for that, too. When the office is dangled, few refuse to grasp it. More than a few bitter primary enemies -- consider Kennedy and Johnson, or John Kerry and John Edwards -- found ways to bury their differences in huzzahs of unity when it came down to final choices. Joining forces “for the good of the party” is as common as leaving a high-ranking job to spend more time with one’s family -- an elegant rationalization. And, in truth, Hillary and Barack have much more in common than not -- on Iraq, on health care, on rebuilding middle class incomes.

The big plus in the Hillary-Barack idea is its dual appeal, both to the practical and the utopian sides of the great American experiment. Middle- and low-income voters struggling with mortgages, jobs, schools, and health care will gravitate to Clinton’s competence, track record, and promise of everyday help with everyday problems. With the economy increasingly the number one issue, Clinton looks like the savior.

Poetry and Prose

But the young, the educated affluent, the cultural and intellectual elites will find Obama’s rhetoric and his future as a grand American healer in the Martin Luther King tradition irresistible. He also carries the anti-war banner higher than does Clinton. Barack’s presence guarantees an historic African-American turnout; Hillary’s does the same for women.

But it’s more than that. Together, Hillary and Barack would offer a bigger package than the mere sum of its parts. The broad enthusiasm they would generate is the critical mass that could scoop up independent voters, just as Clinton and Gore did in 1992 and 1996.

This ticket could only work one way. Hillary, 60, would never accept the vice-presidential slot behind the 46-year-old Obama. And four or eight years in the vice-presidency is the perfect apprenticeship for Obama, who suffers from a lack of experience. Nobody could say that about him in 2016.

Rarely have Democrats had two candidates of such quality fighting it out at such a high level of political visibility. It is almost as if they were already running mates, or even White House mates. There is an intimacy to their enmity, calling each other by their first names, even as they chide one another for perceived slights or shadings of the record.

It’s pretty simple really. Why settle for one of the best candidates in memory when you can have two of them, and thus steamroll the Republicans? Consider the poor woman who e-mailed a question last week to the televised Democratic debate in Nevada. She resented “being forced to choose between the first viable female candidate and the first viable African-American candidate." For her, and millions of other well-meaning Democrats torn between their civil rights experience and their feminist inclinations, the Clinton-Obama solution is elegance itself -- both poetry and prose, to paraphrase the both of them.


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