Now the real war begins and the question most strategists are asking about Barack Obama is: Can he win it without Hillary Clinton on the ticket?
Forty-eight years ago, John Kennedy faced the same dilemma with his chief opponent, Lyndon Johnson, and decided with a warning nudge from House Speaker Sam Rayburn that he couldn’t, despite the fact he loathed the Texas senator.
Nothing short of an offer for the vice presidential nomination whether she accepts it or not seems likely to appease Clinton, whose shadow will certainly continue to loom over the presidential campaign until the votes are cast in November. She made that clear after the final primary, noting that her nearly 18 million votes could not be ignored.
For his part, Obama appeared to understand that a quick detente with Clinton is necessary, praising her profusely — even if a bit patronizingly — at the historic rally where he announced he had enough delegates to become the first black to win a major party presidential nomination.
After the harsh words the two candidates have exchanged over the months of getting to this position, the Illinois senator’s remarks were almost surreal, as though he had suddenly bought into her argument that she was more qualified for the job. His intention, of course, was to begin unifying a decidedly divided Democratic Party against Republican John McCain.
There are those in his camp who bitterly oppose her presence on the ticket and worry openly about the problem of dealing with the former first lady and her husband in an Obama administration should he win. Kennedy and particularly his brother, Robert, had similar feelings about Johnson, the powerful, often difficult Senate majority leader. The practical realities of getting elected, however, overrode those concerns and are likely to do so in this instance.
The Kennedy’s solution following a narrow victory was to pretty much isolate the vice president, something Obama might have difficulty in accomplishing with a dynamic duo of Clintons. Cooler heads in the Obama camp seem to feel that the earlier an accommodation can be reached between the two the better. Also, without Clinton as a running mate, he faces the possibility her support of the ticket will be little more than lip service.
It is problematic whether a Clinton vice presidential nomination would bring certain elements of the party, mainly the blue-collar union and Hispanic voters, back into the fold. The undercurrent of racism openly expressed in some of the primaries makes this doubtful. On the other hand, it is a chance he might have to take. Obama’s failures in the big states and his slogging path to the nomination, losing nine of the last 14 primaries, seem to support that argument. The presumptive Democratic nominee also realizes that snubbing Clinton could cause him trouble later in the Senate if he becomes president. He will need her as an ally if he is to accomplish even a small percentage of what he has promised.
All this, of course, is sheer speculation based on years of observance. Obama seemed to signal his willingness to reach out to his rivals when he said the one book he would take with him to the White House was historian Doris Kearns Goodwin’s on Lincoln’s decision to do the same when he was elected, naming for his second term, a Democrat, Andrew Johnson of Tennessee, as his running mate.
The next few weeks could add even more drama to this historic campaign. There are certain parallels with 1960 that Obama can hardly afford to ignore. Without Johnson, Kennedy would have lost Texas and the election. Without Clinton, Obama gambles that he can overcome the animosity of her most loyal supporters and those who see him as too inexperienced for the job. At the same time, there are those among Obama’s followers who would see this as capitulating to the old after promising something new.
That applies mainly to independents who have flocked to Obama’s banner on grounds he offers a revolution in American politics. His hardcore party supporters aren’t likely to jump ship, realizing that there is a practical side to politics that can’t be shunned no matter how much one would like to. The real war is just beginning and this charismatic young man will need all the help he can get if he is to overcome elements whose motives are hidden by the secrecy of the voting booth. Bringing the dynamic and experience of Clinton to the ticket may be the only way.
(E-mail Dan K. Thomasson, former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service, at thomassondan(at)aol.com.)