Don’t Do It!

Between now and November, the single most important decision that Barack Obama will make is his vice-presidential pick. The decision itself is of little consequence. Although recent vice presidents have played prominent roles, and Dick Cheney has been enormously influential, usually vice presidents have little to do besides attend foreign funerals and break tie votes in the Senate. Nor can you count on a vice-presidential choice to deliver votes. For example, John Edwards did not deliver his home state of North Carolina in 2004. The decision will matter because of what it will tell us about the person making the decision, not about the person chosen. When Jimmy Carter chose Walter Mondale, he was trying to balance his outsider status with a consummate insider. When Ronald Reagan chose George H. W. Bush, he was trying to unite the party and soften his image. When Bill Clinton chose Al Gore – undoubtedly the most significant choice in recent years and a model for Obama to follow – he chose someone very like himself, someone who would serve to reinforce the image of himself Clinton wanted to project: centrist, southern, New Democrat. Gore also delivered some foreign policy chops to the ticket. There are two reasons why Barack Obama should not pick Hillary Clinton. One was on display Tuesday night when Clinton’s defiant "victory speech" was so thoroughly self-centered and inalert to the history of the moment, CNN commentator Jeffrey Toobin characterized her performance as one of "deranged narcissism." Clinton’s politics, her appeal to women and white, working class Catholics, might commend her for the post, but with her politics comes her very complicated psychological baggage. And, that of her husband. Is the White House big enough for three people who think they should be president? Would there be a constant dance around the slights, perceived and real, that attend a relationship in which one person’s role is entirely defined by the more powerful partner? Whether or not it would help Obama win in November, picking Clinton would make governing a nightmare. Which means picking her now would undercut the essential premise of Obama’s candidacy: it is time to put good governance ahead of politics. The second reason not to select Clinton is that Obama, like all newcomers to the national stage, needs to appear strong, someone whom Americans can envision as the Commander-in-Chief. Some of Clinton’s supporters are mounting a campaign to force Obama to select her, but such a campaign will actually make it more difficult to put her on the ticket. Obama is still, for much of the country, an unknown quantity, and the last thing he needs is to have his principal spotlight moment highlight him caving to outside pressure. If Clinton’s backers really want her on the ticket, they should sit down and be quiet. Choosing Clinton would be off-message in other ways. Americans are clamoring for change and Obama has ridden that clamor to the nomination. 1976 was the last election in which no one named Bush or Clinton was on the national ticket. In the days and weeks ahead, Clinton will fade from the news: pollsters will stop asking questions about how she might fare against McCain, her press conferences and public appearances will not garner the attention they have previously, while Obama’s every movement will be scrutinized in detail. Voters want a fresh start. Democrats will unite once the dust settles. Obama needs to choose someone who will reinforce what he wants to tell the voters about how he plans to lead the nation as president in the years ahead, not look back to the bruising primary battle that he has finally won. Michael Sean Winters
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