By E.J. Dionne, Jr.
WASHINGTON—Hillary Clinton talked her way out of the vice presidency on Tuesday night.
Barack Obama may never have intended to make her the offer. But Clinton’s largely self-focused non-concession speech suggested that what some call a dream ticket could turn into a nightmare.
Clinton did declare it an “honor” to have Obama as an opponent and “to call him my friend,” but she made no acknowledgment of the historic nature of her opponent’s achievement. Democrats, once the party most associated with slavery and segregation, had just taken the decisive step of making Obama the first African-American to be a major-party nominee for president. But Obama was not really on Clinton’s radar.
By contrast, Obama offered a lengthy tribute to Clinton and “her barrier-breaking campaign for the presidency.” He praised Bill Clinton’s successes in office. And in a grace note highlighting one of Clinton’s many honorable passions, he declared that when universal health care is achieved, “she will be central to that victory.”
Yes, Obama could be generous because he won. As for Clinton, she not only came heartbreakingly close but also outpaced Obama in the contests that have been held since early March. On the last day of voting, Obama could manage only a split of the final primaries.
Clinton’s partisans argue that all this, plus the passionate devotion of a large constituency, gives her leverage. That is true. Obama needs Clinton and her supporters. He must reach out to women who believe that Clinton was mistreated in an onslaught of misogyny. Arguing over the exact role of sexism in her defeat is beside the point. The anger so many of her followers feel is a political fact rooted in certain realities of this campaign. It must be attended to.
But politics is also about signals and gestures, doing the right thing at the right moment, dealing with outcomes not to your liking.
Clinton’s choice was to present Obama with an implicit critique that might be seen as a set of demands. Clinton told her supporters: “We won together the swing states necessary to get to 270 electoral votes.” Message to Obama: You failed to do that, and you need me to get it done.
She also offered an argument she made during the campaign that John McCain is certain to use, over and over, against Obama. “Who will be the strongest candidate and the strongest president? Who will be ready to take back the White House and take charge as commander in chief and lead our country to better tomorrows?” Whose purpose did she serve by repeating this?
“To the 18 million people who voted for me, and to our many other supporters out there of all ages, I want to hear from you,” she said. “I hope you’ll go to my Web site at HillaryClinton.com and share your thoughts with me and help in any way that you can.”
Perhaps this was a final pitch for funds, understandable in light of her campaign debt. But it also seemed to have echoes of Richard Nixon’s Checkers speech. Was she trying to create a groundswell to pressure Obama to give her the second spot?
The American vice presidency is a strange political job. Its formal responsibilities are so vague that the holder of the office can disappear—or turn it into a powerhouse, as Dick Cheney has and Clinton could. But the vice president’s first task is to help elect the leader of the ticket.
Settling the debate over whether an Obama-Clinton team would be the aggregate of its strengths or the sum of its weaknesses may be beyond the capacity of pollsters. Deciding if putting Clinton on the ticket would undermine Obama’s appeal as the candidate who can “turn the page” on the past involves a subjective judgment—though you can imagine the mocking appearance of “Change We Used to Believe In” posters.
But gaining the vice presidency by invoking leverage just can’t work. It makes the presidential candidate look weak. It breaks in advance the trust that running mates need. It can only presage conflicts and power struggles in a new administration.
Hillary Clinton is an enormously talented public servant. Many who ended up supporting Obama once hoped to support her. But Clinton’s political future requires her to accept that Obama has prevailed, that the primary campaign is over, and that graciousness in defeat can, paradoxically, be turned into the most powerful leverage of all.
E.J. Dionne’s e-mail address is postchat(at)aol.com.
© 2008, Washington Post Writers Group