Monday, May 12, 2008

Dreams & Nightmares

As it becomes increasingly clear that Senator Obama will be the Democratic nominee, speculation will focus---as it inevitably does between the primaries and the convention---on who his running mate will be (and who Senator McCain's running mate will be). Obama will be under considerable pressure to offer the slot to Senator Clinton, as a means of healing the rift that the primary contest opened between their supporters.

The arguments against a so-called "Dream Ticket" are strong: 1) Clinton probably doesn't want the VP job; she doesn't need it as a stepping stone to the White House; the best reason for her to take it would be the hope that the ticket would lose in 2008, so that she'd be well positioned for a run in 2012, rather than having to wait until 2016; if so, Clinton might take the slot and not campaign with full vigor, which is a reason not to pick her; 2) Clinton has very high negatives, so that adding her to the ticket would energize Republicans and turn off independents; 3) Part of the argument for Obama is that he can tie McCain to the Bush Iraq war because Obama opposed it early on. Pairing him on the ticket with Clinton undermines Obama's ability to make that argument. 4) Despite the trope of "change" versus "experience," neither Obama nor Clinton (nor McCain for that matter) has any substantial executive experience, which argues for picking a governor. 5) Clinton doesn't help with a potential swing state in the way that, say, Jim Webb might help Obama carry Virginia.

So there you have a whole lot of conventional wisdom. And yet, I wouldn't bet a lot of money against an Obama/Clinton ticket. The traditional role of the VP candidate is attack dog and if the last 6 weeks have proven anything, it's that Hillary Clinton can play that role effectively. Plus, once Clinton fully realizes she's not getting the No. 1 slot on the ticket, she's going to look at the damage she has done to the Democratic Party and herself, and realize that the best way to undo that damage is through a gesture that allows her to claim she was never trying to be racially divisive; she was only pointing to the uncomfortable fact of existing racial divisions; she can then offer herself as a bridge-builder, and potentially bring her supporters along. To be sure, vigorous campaigning by Clinton for an Obama-led ticket that does not include her could also have this effect, but not in as large a degree.

Those are reasons why Clinton might sincerely want to take the VP slot if offered. But what does Obama gain by offering it? Many of the Clinton supporters who have told exit pollsters that they would support McCain in the general if Obama gets the nomination will likely change their minds between now and November, especially those that usually vote Democratic. But some won't, and Clinton's presence on the ticket will bring some of them around. It's also quite likely that the economy will be a more important issue for voters than the war (although obviously they're related; the expenditure of dollars in Iraq limits options at home). An Obama/Clinton team could be very effective on economic issues.

There is also the Rovian truth. Turdblossom showed that you can win general elections by doing just enough to stay viable for independents while massively mobilizing your base. I have a hard time believing that an Obama/Clinton ticket would not lead to huge voter turnout for Dems---especially given its historic nature. True, it will also inspire Republican turnout, but given the way turnout has been going in the primaries (even when the Republicans still had a live contest), and given the fundamentals, turnout has to favor the Democrats.

Bottom Line: I have no idea whom Obama will name as his running mate, but I no longer think the "Dream Ticket" is a crazy idea. The bigger Hillary's victory in West Virginia, the more likely it becomes, so long as she stays in her more restrained mode of campaigning (i.e., directs her fire at McCain). Of course, I'm a lawyer and law professor, not a politico, so what do I know?

Posted by Mike Dorf