May 1, 2008
Deep in January, after the first primaries but before the shakedown, I wrote here that practically the whole slate of Democratic candidates at that time could form a ready-made cabinet. All but the fringes of them were not only qualified for the presidency but also peculiarly adept for other executive-branch offices: I suggested, for example, Joe Biden to head the State Department; John Edwards, Health and Human Services; Bill Richardson, Homeland Security; Chris Dodd, Education. Now that the choice for the top spot has come down to two — and will likely remain so right into the convention — the thought of that "Dream Team" continues to allure. Can the party coalesce around not only a single nominee but a circle of now well-known individuals who can fan out across the nation, presenting a unified set of program proposals as a refreshing and solid alternative to John ("Bush Lite") McCain?
That all depends on the two front-runners.
Cabinet aside, how Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama work out their relationship and their roles over the next months will determine the outcome of the national election and the future of the Democratic Party for years to come.
So what about that smaller version of the Dream Team, the "Dream Ticket"? Sizeable numbers of Democrats, including uncommitted "superdelegates" whose votes almost certainly will decide the nominee, believe a Clinton/Obama or Obama/Clinton ticket would be a perfect match. "It would be great to see them on the same ticket," Sam Spencer, an uncommitted superdelegate from Maine told the New York Times recently. "They have attracted so many new voters and so much excitement, it seems so obvious."
It does look quite natural. Obama and Clinton have been in the presidential spotlight for almost two years; to every American they’re as familiar as neighbors now, and both have generated enthusiasm and admiration abroad as well. Having either one of them off the ticket would seem strange, almost disturbing, like a divorce. After all those debates, we’re used to seeing them together, not only talking at one another but sometimes even talking with one another. We may dislike their bickering, but we’d hate to see them have a yard sale and break up the house. The apparent differences that have contrasted them in the primaries — Clinton’s experience and practicality and Obama’s youth and inspirational rhetoric, and their respective appeal to specific blocs of voters — would turn complementary in the national campaign. As historian Doris Kearns Goodwin told the New York Times, "Obama and Clinton do fit in a jigsaw-puzzle way. She brings women, older voters, blue-collar workers, Hispanics, and he brings elites, liberals, the young and the crucially necessary black vote."
Clinton and Obama are generally compatible in their policy stances — most of the disagreements displayed in the debates are minimal and could be easily reconciled — but are they compatible enough personally to campaign and to serve as a unit? Many reporters and commentators assume that rivalry equals hatred, but is this possibly only a reflection of the animosity of their advisors, doing what advisors have to do to sway primary voters? As Goodwin says: "All of the arguments about how rivals don’t like each other would fall away if either thinks the other could help them win."
There’s no question that ego often overrules reason, especially in presidential contenders. Though the candidates themselves have never exactly ruled out taking the second spot on the ticket, many of their supporters say it would be a humiliation that neither could endure. But in the circumstances of this campaign, just how humiliating would it be?
Over the previous several decades, and particularly in the last two administrations, the actual role and the public perception of the office of vice president have significantly changed. John Nance Garner, Franklin Roosevelt’s first VP, characterized the position as "the spare tire on the automobile of government." (Less felicitously, he also allegedly said that "the vice presidency isn’t worth a pitcher of warm piss.") But because the duties of the job are so meagerly defined in the Constitution — to preside over the Senate and to succeed the president in the event of death or incapacity — the powers of the office also have immense flexibility and room to grow under a president willing to bestow them. Most particularly, Dick Cheney has taken full advantage of the constitutional lacunae to turn the office into a virtual co-presidency. Though he has been disparaged by Democrats for being the power behind the throne, he has de facto given the vice presidency new stature in the eyes of the public.
Thomas R. Marshall, Woodrow Wilson’s VP, told this sour tale about his own predicament: "Once there were two brothers. One went away to sea; the other was elected vice president. And nothing was heard of either of them again."
It will not be so in this election year. Whoever the vice-presidential nominee turns out to be, that person will be heard of — and heard from. If the candidates and former candidates can come to an understanding of shared power and responsibility, they can make the whole Dream Team a reality.