Hillary Clinton's Path to the Vice Presidency

Shortly after the primaries in Virginia, Maryland, and the District of Columbia almost four months ago, I wrote about the problems Hillary Clinton and her campaign were having in terms of their brand image. Here is a brief summary from my original analysis:

"To summarize, Hillary Clinton is running on a message that does not match what voters are looking for [experience], chose a poorly worded [egocentric] campaign slogan that embodies the worst conceptions people have of her, and is unable to strongly make the case for her candidacy (e.g., support her brand image) without inviting blowback that would lessen the potency of her attacks. While it is still possible that Obama could stumble and Clinton could emerge victorious, her once near-certain chances of snaring the nomination have gone up in smoke. And a lot of these problems are due to simple marketing problems, rather than Obama's strength."
Clinton was unable to remedy these problems in time to salvage the nomination. So absent a new scandal, the best she can hope for now is an offer to be Barack Obama's vice president. But her ungracious speech on the same night as his victory speech reflected the same weaknesses that caused her to lose the nomination to begin with and threatened her already slim chances of being offered the Number Two slot.

Instead of congratulating Obama, she talked about how she had won 18 million votes and how she wasn't making any decisions about what to do with her campaign. While it may have been a bit odd for her to concede that night, talking about how she was a superior candidate to the the candidate who actually won did not go over well and showed that she had not learned one of the reasons why she was even in this situation to begin with. Now she has elbowed her way into the storyline about who Obama will tap for his running mate.

I recently wrote about how Obama could defuse the threat that Clinton posed. And before Junior Super Tuesday I argued that should not choose Clinton. But in fairness to Clinton, no losing candidate has won such a large share of the popular vote and delegates. So she can't easily be dismissed. She is clearly a formidable candidate with a large and devout constituency. And more importantly, she has actually been the stronger candidate over the past three months.

Hillary Clinton has made a few mistakes, but it is not too late for her to change her ways and get on Obama's ticket. Here's how she can do it:

1. Acknowledge Obama as the winner. Pundits everywhere are waiting for Clinton to acknowledge that she lost. The Obama campaign is waiting for this too. Until she does this, she will be seen as a threat by Obama regardless of how much he claims to "admire" and "respect" her. Clinton is still likely harboring dreams of another controversial pastor to sabotage Obama or for him to be further wounded by the radioactive Tony Rezko. Obviously, if Obama were to be crippled by such an event, Clinton could rise from the ashes and be the natural alternative nominee. But until that happens (and it probably won't), she must at least show sincere deference to him. This means she can no longer implicitly diminish Obama by touting her own accomplishments.

2. Have both Clintons match his transparency and commitment to clean government. Hillary Clinton contradicts a lot of Obama's message. She represents the status quo. He represents change. She represents polarization. He represents unity. She represents the old way of doing business. He represents a new approach to politics. If Clinton wants to be vice president, both she and her husband will have to clean up their acts and let the sunshine in on their political dealings. The donors to the Clinton Presidential Library, for example, will have to be released. Both Clintons must be scrutinized. There are few more valuable commodities than voters' trust, and Obama has earned it. His campaign slogan is "Change we can believe in." Allowing this trust to be sullied by the same political obfuscations that have made voters so cynical to begin with could be fatal to Obama's chances and open up John McCain's path to the presidency.

3. Don't come across as so eager. The vice presidency is commonly criticized by politicians. John Nance Garner, who was Franklin Roosevelt's vice president, infamously said that "the vice presidency is not worth a warm bucket of [spit]." Even though the vice presidency might seem to be more of a diplomatic office than an executive one at times, it is still a powerful position that can put a politician at the head of the line in terms of getting first crack at the top job in the next election. Clinton knows this. If she makes it on Obama's ticket and he loses, she could always run again in 2012 as the "I told you so" candidate. And if Obama is successful, she could run in 2016. Perhaps her unfavorability ratings will have diminished enough by that time to make voters more comfortable with the idea of giving her yet four more years in the White House. Clinton's presidential ambitions have a greater chance of being fulfilled if she doesn't make these ambitions so obvious. There is no value in Obama selecting a vice president who is seen as merely biding her time. In short, Clinton can be president later or never. Now is no longer an option.

Again, Obama is well aware of Clinton's strengths. But he has to feel that he is making this choice using his own timetable. It will probably be several weeks before he makes a decision, but if Clinton does not want to remove herself from contention, she would be wise to heed some of the points listed here.

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