Hillary Clinton's recent invocation of Robert F. Kennedy's assassination in 1968 has damaged not only her reputation, but it's hurt Barack Obama's chances of becoming president. Obama's best chance to win the “white working people” she frequently invokes--not to mention “women of a certain age” who have been her fiercest advocates—would be to ask her to join the ticket. She's made that virtually impossible by making her candidacy nearly radioactive.
Still, her supporters are likely to be miffed. Many will blame the media for twisting her words, which were, simply: "We all remember Bobby Kennedy was assassinated in June in California." And depending on what Obama does between now and November, they could stay away from the polls in droves.
Too bad. Until Friday, May 23, she had an even chance of ending up on the ticket as candidate for vice-president. It couldn't have gone the other way, of course. Barring the formerly unspeakable, the only way for Hillary to win the Democratic nomination this year would be by painting Obama as unelectable.
True, she could let someone else do the Swift-boating, but either way it would leave him unsuited for second spot on a Clinton ticket. Prospects of a Clinton-Obama ticket have been remote for some time.
Until May 23, though, Hillary was poised beautifully to become the first female vice-president of the United States, if she wanted it. Consider:
1. She held the power.
2. She had the incentives.
3. Obama-Clinton would likely win.
Ouch. I take it from the rotten tomatoes whizzing my way that you're not convinced. OK, let's take those three points one at a time.
One. She had the power, maybe still does. If she were to phone Obama today and say, “Barack, put me on the ticket or I'll withhold my support,” what would be his alternative?
Yes, he could find someone else. There's no shortage of good candidates. And he might even win without her active support, for reasons I'll go into. But that scenario doesn't disprove my premise that she holds considerable bargaining power.
Suppose, for instance, she goes a step further and says, “Barack, I'm laying my cards on the table. Put me on the ticket or I'll fight you all the way through the convention and make it ugly, just as our dear Teddy Kennedy made it ugly for Jimmy Carter in 1980. I won't hug you. I won't shake hands, I won't stand on the same stage with you, and I might find sufficient reason to lead hundreds of delegates—especially angry women--from the convention hall and divide this party clear through November.”
This could happen anyway, especially if Hillary supporters believe she was cheated out of votes from Florida and Michigan.
We all know Hillarites who say they'll never vote for Obama. Maybe you're one of them. And even though many will change their minds, a considerable number won't unless Hillary signals strongly that she's for him. But aside from general good will, what incentive does she have unless she's on the ticket? After all, a loss for Obama could set her up to lead the party in 2012, so why work for him unless she's on the ticket?
Don't think she'd play this card? She played the Tony Rezko “slumlord” card. She played the “working class whites” card too. Either way, though, it brings us to…
Point Two: She has the incentive. Hillary's made history already. No woman ever marched this close to the Democratic nomination for president. She could add luster to her Crown of Firsts by becoming first woman to serve as vice-president and by serving on the first major ticket with a person of color. Now she has added incentive because, face it, her run for top of the ticket is done.
Furthermore, should Obama-Clinton win, she would stand a heartbeat away from the presidency, as her words of May 23, suggested. Safety is an issue for both these candidates. For reasons of karma and tact, I'll say no more about that.
Point Three: Obama-Clinton would beat McCain-Lieberman or anyone else. Recently, Virginia Rep. Tom Davis called Bush “radioactive” and compared the Republican Party to an airplane headed for a mountain in the dark. Coming from a Republican, those are scary analogies. In recent special elections, Republicans lost three congressional seats they thought secure. Polls show Democrats dramatically ahead in nearly every category nationally.
Meanwhile, McCain's errors are piling up. Like Bush, he's bet his place in history on the war in Iraq. Bad bet. While the Surge helped McCain win the Republican base in primaries, the war works against him from here on.
We're in Year Six of a botched occupation. Almost nobody's happy about it. As a commentator suggested May 18 on Meet the Press, it's as if McCain took the Bush family name by supporting Bush's war-mongering speech before the Israeli Knesset earlier this month: Like it or not, his name might as well be John McCain Bush now.
This is just one of many McCain miscues. He's made a series of remarkable gaffs, displaying confusion regarding Shiites and Sunnis, the number of years we'd have soldiers in Iraq, the meaning of appeasement, and fine points of the economy. He's had to fire staffers who served as lobbyists for unsavory associates, including dictators, and cancel endorsements of two ministers who are easily as nutty, if not nuttier, than Jeremiah Wright.
While it's true that electing the oldest president ever would make history, this isn't the sort of history making that attracts voters. Electing a man of color holds a certain pizzazz. Electing a woman holds a certain edgy glamour. Electing an old guy? Not so much.
For all these reasons, I believe the vice-presidency could've been Hillary's for the asking, until May 23. Maybe it's not completely dead even now.
Could Obama summon the goodwill and good sense to overlook this gaffe in the interests of his party and his own chance at making history? Asking Hillary to be his running mate would demonstrate an almost transcendent big-mindedness, largeness of spirit and good will.
But then, that's what he's been running on isn't it?