Thursday, May 22, 2008

What is Hillary's End-Game?

With just three primaries left, it is abundantly clear at this point that Barack Obama will be the Democratic nominee for president, yet Hillary has shown no signs that she plans to leave the race any time soon. On the assumptions that she is aware that the race is effectively over, and that she does, in fact, have some reason for remaining in the race other than spite and/or denial, the question becomes, what is she looking to gain? In the extended entry, I discuss what the competing theories are, and how realistic they seem to be.

Running again in 2012: Not gonna happen. Running again in 2012 is a bigger risk for her than running in 2008 was: she's up for reelection in 2012. Running again means giving up her senate seat, whereas in 2008, she's not out of a job after the Democratic Convention. That said, if she chooses to run again, it may mean running a primary against President Obama, wherein she has no argument against him assuming he's done a decent job. Her best arguments, "He is unelectable" or "I've got more experience" are no longer viable claims. If Obama loses in 2008, she has, at minimum, four major hurdles to overcome:

1) Obama proved that she can be beaten in the Democratic primary. If she runs again, whoever challengers her has a ready-made blueprint for how to win;

2) There would presumably be another front-runner, as whoever Obama chooses as his VP nominee becomes his heir apparent in 2012;

3) With Bill out of office for 12 years, and her defeat in 2008, the "Clinton Machine" is dead. She won't be able to rely on a dream team of top consultants, operatives, and fundraisers (for all the good that did her this time around anyway); and

4) Most importantly, half the party will hold her accountable for Obama's loss. Not only will she need to convince Democrats that she's the best candidate (again), but also to forgive her for bloodying up Obama and clearing the way for President McCain.

Obama "assumes" Clinton's campaign debt: As far as I can tell, this theory started when Tim Russert pulled it out of his ass the night of the Indiana & North Carolina primaries. The next day, Huffington Post reported on "the near certainty that the Obama campaign would agree to pay back the $11.4 million she has loaned her own bid, along with an estimated $10 million to $15 million in unpaid campaign expenses."

There are two factors that make this implausible. First, politically, it's a non-starter. The optics of Obama giving the Clintons tens of millions of dollars to drop out of the race would be disastrous for him. Given that a large part of the Clinton's debt is to themselves, this would amount to a multi-million dollar bribe, and would significantly impact his ability to campaign as a new kind of politician who is above making such deals.

Furthermore, the Obama campaign has prided itself on fundraising from its vaunted small-donor base. These donors, presumably, give in small amounts precisely because they cannot give more, and would be incensed at the notion that the money that they believed was going to help Obama would instead go to someone they have actively opposed for the last several months. As Josh Marshall succinctly argued, "That's not what people gave their money for."

Second, however, is the fact that it is literally not an option. According to federal election law, the Obama campaign would be limited to donating $2,000 to the Clinton campaign. What Obama could offer to do would be to ask his supporters to donate money to the Clintons, in order to retire their campaign debt. Given the oft-noted animosity that many of Obama's ardent supporters feel towards the Clintons, that the Clinton's debt is largely to themselves, and that they aren't exactly hurting for money, I doubt Obama supporters feel compelled to help Hillary out.

Clinton for Governor: This theory took off when Newsweek's Jonathan Alter suggested that Hillary accept the Governor's Mansion in place of the White House. No compelling reason is given, however, for why she would either want to be governor or make a good governor. Nor has Clinton herself shown any interest in leaving Washington for Albany. Even if she chose to do so, she would likely have to run against the sitting governor, David Paterson, who has said that he plans to run for reelection in 2010. Besides, does she really want her next career move to be a challenge to an incumbent governor, who, like Obama, happens to be a popular, black, Ivy-league educated lawyer and former professor?

Clinton for Majority Leader: Three problems: Harry Reid, Dick Durbin, and Chuck Schumer. As with running for governor, Clinton's first problem is that someone else already has the job, and they probably want to keep it. While it might make a tempting consolation prize if it were vacant, Harry Reid's been in the Senate for over 20 years, and has been one of its top-ranking Democrats since 1999. He's paid his dues and is unlikely to give up the position he's worked toward for so long.

If Reid were to step aside for some reason, Clinton would still have to out-maneuver Durbin and Schumer, who, in addition to sharing a house in DC, are the second- and third-ranking Democrats in the Senate. As the senior senator from Illinois, Durbin also happens to be one of Obama's earliest and most influential supporters, something a President Obama would take into account in deciding how to weigh in on choosing a new Majority Leader.

Schumer, New York's senior senator, is in his second term as chairman of the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee. In 2006, he helped unseat 6 Republican incumbents, giving Democrats control of the senate, and he is likely to help seat several more Democratic senators in this election cycle. Presumably, all of these new Democratic senators would maintain some level of gratitude for Schumer's DSCC leadership, and would be hesitant to cross him by supporting Clinton in a contested race for majority leader.

Clinton for Cabinet Position in Obama Administration: Of the Big 4 (Defense, Justice, State and Treasury), I have trouble seeing her as being particularly interested in either Secretary of the Treasury, or Attorney General, based on the issues she focused on as both First Lady and as a sitting senator, so I'll assume that she isn't.

She might be interested in Secretary of State or Defense, given her campaign's focus on her foreign policy credentials, and her service on the Senate's Armed Services Committee, yet I don't see these appointments as particularly plausible. Simply put, there is no subject on which she and Obama are more divided than foreign affairs. Most prominently, they've fought over Iraq, Iran, and basic philosophies of negotiation with foreign leaders. Such disagreements would seem to rule her out for either position.

There is, however, one cabinet position for which Clinton seems both well-qualified and well-suited: Secretary of Health and Human Services. As a member of the Senate's Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions since 2001, she is familiar with many of the issues dealt with by the Department of Health and Human Services. Given her intense and long-standing advocacy on behalf of health care reform and children's issues in particular, this seems an ideal appointment for her. Whether she would prefer it to being a senator, however, is anyone's guess.

This leaves me with what I think are the most likely, and most interesting, possibilities for Hillary might be hoping for: Vice President, and Supreme Court Justice.

When it comes to choosing a running mate, there is a strong argument to be made against choosing Clinton, that it is incongruous with his message of moving past partisanship and old political wars. But the negatives, in my view, pale in comparison to the benefits. Though I hate to quote him, Andrew Sullivan makes a compelling case for what he terms the "Hate-Filled Dream Ticket."

The conservative white voters that Clinton has amazingly managed to attract could be combined with the massive infusion of new young votes, internet money, and African-American enthusiasm to create a potential tsunami in the election. Instead of having to pick between the first black president and the first woman president, the Democrats could offer voters both: the first black president and first female vice-president. Worries about Obama's relative youth and lack of Washington experience would be allayed by the presence of the Clintons. The toxicity of the Clinton baggage could be balanced by the hope Obama has inspired.

The Clintons could be deployed to shore up support in some of the Reagan Democrat states, while Obama wins over enough independents to carry the Mountain West and the upper Midwest. California, Ohio, New York, Florida and Pennsylvania could be secured…

And yet I can also see that the new politics Obama represents has provoked a ferocious backlash from the established political class; and his weakness (as well as his appeal) as a candidate is his reluctance to engage in the kind of street-fighting that politics can sometimes — and must sometimes — become. By picking Clinton as a vice-president, he would be pulling a classic American manoeuvre — getting a surrogate to do the dirty pugilism of the campaign, while using his own extraordinary skills to provide a unifying and uplifting overall theme. Picking Clinton would also defuse genuine concerns among older voters that he is just too green to be entrusted with presidential power just yet…

There's also a way for Obama to explain this choice in a way that does not violate — and in fact strengthens — his core message. His model in this should be Abraham Lincoln. What Lincoln did, as Doris Kearns Goodwin explained in her brilliant book, "Team Of Rivals," was to bring his most bitter opponents into his cabinet in order to maintain national and party unity at a time of crisis. Obama — who is a green legislator from Illinois, just as Lincoln was — could signal to his own supporters in picking Clinton that he isn't capitulating to old politics, he is demonstrating his capacity to reach out and engage and co-opt his rivals and opponents. Done deftly, picking Clinton could even resonate with Obama's supporters as a statesmanlike gesture, a sign of the kind of reconciliation he wants to achieve at home and abroad and energize his own party for the fall. It is consonant with his core message: that he can unify the country in a way few other politicians can. It would even help heal the gulf that has opened up between the Clintons and black voters in this campaign. It's win-win all round.

It is the ability of this ticket to reunite the party after the divisive primary that demonstrates how smart a move an Obama/Clinton would be. Given the huge numbers of Clinton supporters who say that they would vote for McCain or stay home rather than support Obama, a number that only went up as the campaign progressed, there are few better ways to ensure that they don’t follow through with their threat of throwing the election to the Republicans. 75% of Clinton supporters, and 60% of Democrats overall want a unity ticket – with numbers like that, it’s hard to deny its appeal. In particular, Clinton’s appeal is to the key demographics that Obama has been unable to attract: working-class whites and Hispanics (and no, Edwards can’t get those same demographics).

Lastly, Supreme Court Justice Clinton: Perhaps the most interesting possibility is for Barack Obama to agree to nominate Hillary to the Supreme Court.

Before stepping on to the national stage in 1992, Hillary had a very successful legal career. After attending Yale Law School, she practiced with The Rose Law Firm for nearly 20 years, becoming its first female partner. Additionally, she has worked as a lawyer for the Children’s Defense Fund, and for the House Committee on the Judiciary during the Watergate Hearings. In both 1988 and 1991, The National Law Journal listed her as one of America’s 100 most influential lawyers.

As Jason Miller argued in yesterday’s Washington Post,

Obama and Clinton have wound up agreeing on nearly every major issue during the campaign; at the end of the day, they share many orthodoxies. Unless the Supreme Court were to get mired in minuscule details of what constitutes universal health care, Obama could assume that he'd be pleased with most Clinton votes, certainly on major issues such as abortion.

Obama could also appreciate Clinton's undeniably keen mind. Even Clinton detractors have noted her remarkable mental skills; she would be equal to any legal or intellectual challenge she would face as a justice. The fact that she hasn't served on a bench before would be inconsequential, considering her experience in law and in government.

If Obama were to promise Clinton the first court vacancy, her supporters would actually have a stronger incentive to support him for president than they would if she were going to be vice president. Given the Supreme Court's delicate liberal-conservative balance, she would play a major role in charting the country's future; there is no guarantee that a Clinton vice presidency would achieve such importance…

Obama could also trust that Clinton would maintain her image as a fighter after
arriving at the court. Her tenacity has never been more apparent. President Obama would engender praise (at least from Democrats) at the prospect of Hillary going toe to toe with Clarence Thomas, Antonin Scalia and Samuel Alito. Clinton's gumption and determination might make her one of the most powerful forces ever on the court, particularly when it comes to swaying other justices when the court is closely divided.

For some context, there have been many Supreme Court Justices who did not previously serve as judges. There is also a long list of influential Justices who were nominated for the Court after careers in the legislature, including, most notably, Hugo Black (a former senator representing Alabama); William Henry Moody (a former member of Congress from Massachusetts, who, in only 2 years on the Court, authored 67 opinions); and Chief Justice Fred Vinson (formerly a member of Congress from Kentucky).

There is even precedent for Supreme Court nominations playing a role in presidential politics. In 1860, Lincoln defeated Ohio Governor, and former Senator, Salmon Chase for the Republican nomination. Fearing that Chase would run against him again in 1864, Lincoln preempted his challenge by nominating Chase to be Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.

Similarly, Earl Warren became Chief Justice only after involvement in two presidential campaigns. As Governor of California, Warren was the 1948 Republican nominee for Vice President, and a candidate for the Republican nomination in 1952. In 1953, Eisenhower appointed his former rival; the Warren Court would go on to be one of the most progressive periods in the Supreme Court’s history.

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