What does Hillary want? God only knows

If Barack Obama can successfully negotiate with a tenacious Hillary Clinton, he’ll have proved that he has the mettle to deal with regimes like Iran and North Korea.

The proposition is not as flip as it sounds. His perceived naive willingness to talk with hostile nations with no preconditions was an issue during the primary campaign and it will be an even bigger issue in the general election where Obama will face tough questions about his relative youth and inexperience.

Despite the fact that Obama locked up the Democratic nomination this week, Clinton has refused to concede, indicating she may take a few weeks to weigh her options with the implicit threat that she might drag out that process to the party’s convention.

Obama would like the stage to himself to begin the task of taking on John McCain, who has already proposed the two hold a series of joint town meetings, jovially suggesting they share the same plane to save energy. Having Clinton still technically in the race would be a major distraction from those debates.

So the question is, what will it take to get Clinton to concede, a bargaining process the candidate herself launched by rhetorically asking, and never really answering, “What does Hillary want?”

Apparently she wants some or all of the following: the vice presidency; a primetime speaking role at the convention; help paying off her campaign debt; and a second crack at enacting universal health care, preferably her plan, not his.

All of this is very tricky ground for Obama. Politically, there is a lot to be said for an Obama-Clinton ticket. She is a tireless campaigner, does far better with working class voters than Obama, has big state appeal and a loyal bloc of older women voters who will stick with her no matter what. And she would benefit from having Obama’s campaign strategists, who proved smarter than hers. The two would have a star quality that would make McCain look plodding.

On the other hand, a partial restoration of the Clinton dynasty would hardly be the “change” that Obama has promised. There’s the question of whether she would be willing to be as self-effacing as the vice presidency requires and then there’s also the question of where her loose cannon of a husband would fit into the equation.

Having won a long arduous race fair and square, Obama may think it’s unfair that he has to placate Clinton, but the Republicans will be unfair this fall and the problems a president has to face are inevitably unfair. Consider handling Hillary Clinton a dry run for bigger problems later on.