Sunday, March 9, 2008

Dreams and Nightmares

The Dream Team has become Barack Obama's biggest nightmare. Bill Clinton, whose political instincts remain unmatched, gets it. He's been on the campaign trail openly flirting with the idea that the best way for the Democrats to take back the White House in November is to offer the public a ticket that includes both his wife and her rival. In this moment in which history will be made, why not make it on both the presidential and vice presidential levels? With a Clinton-Obama ticket, everyone leaves the party's Denver convention with a smiling face.

And make no mistake—the ticket would, in fact, be Clinton and Obama, in that order. Hillary Clinton brings exactly nothing to an Obama presidential run that he couldn't find somewhere else. Unlike 1984, when Walter Mondale had to pluck Queens Congresswoman Geraldine Ferraro out of obscurity in his futile effort to upend Ronald Reagan, the Democratic bench today is deep and includes several highly accomplished women at both the gubernatorial and senatorial levels. If Obama plugs his name into the political version of, he'll find a number of matches that don't bring Senator Clinton's unusually high negatives to the table.

Hillary, on the other hand, can find nobody who can, in terms of either demographic representation or eloquence, take the place of Barack Obama. Under normal circumstances, of course, it is unlikely that she would even consider Obama for the second slot on her ticket. The charisma gap would not reflect well on her and there would be difficulty keeping such a preternaturally ambitious politician from stealing the spotlight even after Inauguration Day. It is hard to imagine that Obama would be content to play Hubert Humphrey to Clinton's LBJ.

But these are obviously not normal circumstances. Since Clinton is likely to come to the Democratic convention trailing Obama in the delegate count, it would be difficult to deny him a place at the table without alienating two key constituencies: African Americans and netroots ideologues. Since this race is going to come down to the Super Delegates (even Obama will be unable to win without help), Clinton's only hope is to offer them a deal they can't refuse, one that lets all factions go home happy.

The problem for the Democratic Party is that both candidates' arguments have validity. Barack Obama has inspired people to vote who would never otherwise have considered casting a ballot. He is primarily responsible for the record turnout recorded at nearly every primary and caucus held this year. If the Democrats play their cards right, millions of Americans could be mobilized, not just for 2008, but for a lifetime. At best, this could be a watershed election like 1932 in which the parties realign for a generation. At worst, it could help ensure that the Dems will hold onto Congress for at least the next few political cycles.

But Hillary Clinton's argument is equally solid. Obama is untested and inexperienced, and his timid and uncertain response to recent setbacks has raised serious questions about his ability to sustain the attacks that would come his way from the GOP should he win the nomination. All of a sudden, Barack Obama appears to be someone who could be effectively swiftboated. John McCain, dreadful candidate though he is, will be assisted by a fawning press corps that elevates toughness over all other virtues.

Hillary is also correct in pointing out that much of Senator Obama's lead in the delegate count has been built in states that the Democrats have no real chance of winning in November. So far, Clinton has taken most of the Blue states, the two candidates have split the purple swing states, and Obama has run up the score in places like Alabama, Georgia, Idaho, and Utah, all of which will support McCain in the general election even if he picks a parakeet for vice president. Given that, it's hard for anyone except diehard Obama groupies to get excited about his win yesterday in Wyoming or his forthcoming victory in Mississippi.

We already know that the prospect of a Clinton-Obama ticket has the conservatives terrified. Rush Limbaugh went out of his way the other day to suggest that such a pairing "doesn't have a prayer" of beating the Republicans. Gotta have a white guy somewhere, you know. But to say that Limbaugh is dishonest is like saying that Oxycontin is addictive. It is axiomatic. Even El Rushbo understands that Clinton and Obama would be a formidable team. Regardless of what they may tell you, it is the GOP's greatest fear.

Yeah, but what about those white guys? Can the Democrats win without them? Of course they can. First, not all white men reflexively reject women and African American candidates. Second, the white male vote has gone overwhelmingly Republican ever since Ronald Reagan started feeding them stories about welfare queens and Cadillacs. Even from that unfavorable starting point, however, the Dems still won the popular vote in three of the last four presidential elections and came tantalizingly close in the other. And that was without the boost in turnout that would almost certainly result from Barack Obama's presence anywhere on the Democratic ticket. Women + African Americans + Latinos + young people creates a total that would simply dwarf even the most one-sided white male GOP landslide.

Barack Obama, then, is up against a busload of electoral logic at just the moment of his greatest vulnerability. The Clinton team wouldn't have dared float this idea before their key victories last Tuesday in Ohio, Texas, and Rhode Island. It would have sounded like the New England Patriots proposing to the New York Giants that perhaps it might be a good idea to share the Super Bowl trophy. But Hillary has seized her moment and planted the thought of a Dream Team in the minds of voters, pundits, and Super Delegates. The story has become bigger than whatever results may emerge from the latest Red State caucus or Deep South primary.

Obama, of course, will resist this talk as long as he possibly can. He is in this race to be president, not to spend his middle years shuttling off to funerals and raising his hand at cabinet meetings. Less than a week ago, he must have been considering changing his ringtone to "Hail to the Chief". Now he is faced with the prospect of replacing Dick Cheney, only without the power base.

But assuming that Hillary Clinton wins the Pennsylvania primary and the likely Florida do-over, the calls will mount for Barack Obama to delay his ambitions for the good of the party. He won't like the idea, but the pressure may be enormous, with Howard Dean and the DNC leadership engaging in relentless and ultimately irresistible arm twisting. The man is, after all, only 46 years old. If Hillary loses, he will be the frontrunner for the 2012 nomination. If she wins, he will get his chance at the hardly geriatric age of 54.

In the meantime, the Dream Team meme has gone viral. It will take more than a couple of victory speeches in Cheyenne and Jackson to put it to rest.

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