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The Case Against Hillary Rodham Clinton

The unity huddle today in Unity (get it?), New Hampshire, between Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton is sure to stir talk of the so-called "Dream Ticket."

VP Watch

Earlier this week we argued the case for Clinton to be picked as vice president. Today -- even as the two one-time combatants appear in public for the first time -- we make the case against picking Clinton.

Changing Faces?

At the center of Obama's primary victory over Clinton was the idea that the only way real change could come to politics in Washington was if voters started sending different types of leaders to the nation's capitol.

Implicit in that message was that Obama wasn't running simply against George W. Bush but also against the Clinton years and the idea of having the same two families in the White House for the last two decades.

Time and again in exit polling during the protracted primary season, voters opted for the fresh-faced candidate promising to do things differently even if they believed that Clinton was the more experienced and better prepared to tackle the variety of challenges facing the country on the first day of her presidency.


Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton in Unity, N.H.

To name Clinton as vice president then would run directly counter to the core message that Obama used to win the primary. If Clinton lost the primary at least in part because Democratic voters didn't want to extend the Bush-Clinton-Bush dynasty, then installing her on the ticket makes no sense. Her presence would muddy the Obama brand and allow McCain to further his argument that Obama is a typical politician beneath his rhetoric of hope and change.

Divide And (Not) Conquer

Clinton's strongest asset as a politician is her strength among the Democratic base -- particularly women. Her greatest weakness is her inability (or at least struggle) to broaden her appeal to independents and Republican-leaning voters.

One need only look as far as the washingtonpost.com's battleground surveys in Colorado, Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin for evidence of that divisiveness.

Asked whether Obama should pick Clinton as his running mate, no more than three in ten independents in any of the four states thought that would be a good idea. The numbers ranged from 25 percent in Michigan to 31 percent in Minnesota -- not exactly a ringing endorsement from crucial swing voters of the Dream Ticket.

In a follow-up question, independents in each of the four states were asked whether adding Clinton to the ticket would make them more or less likely to vote Democratic in the fall. In Colorado and Michigan, two of the swingiest states heading into the fall, roughly half as many independents said it would make them more likely to vote for Obama as said it would make them less likely to back the Illinois senator. The numbers were slightly more encouraging for Clinton in Wisconsin (17 percent more likely/22 percent less likely) and Minnesota (20 percent more likely/21 percent less likely) but still not the sort of polling data those pushing an Obama-Clinton ticket would like to see.

The simple fact is that recent polling suggests that independents will once again be the crucial voting bloc of the 2008 election. Obama's leads in each of the four battleground states polled by Quinnipiac for washingtonpost.com was built -- in large part -- on his edge among independents.

Picking Clinton could well jeopardize Obama's appeal to independents and allow McCain, whose maverick image and reform credentials make him a potentially appealing choice for unaffiliated voters, to step in and make his case.

A Co-Presidency

Installing your chief rival for the presidential nomination has potential and peril.

When John F. Kennedy picked Lyndon B. Johnson as his number two on the Democratic ticket in 1960, it was widely seen as a symbolically successful attempt to heal the party. But when Ronald Reagan named George H.W. Bush in 1980, it was regarded as a grudging -- and not altogether happy -- pairing.

Which would Obama-Clinton be?

During the primaries, Clinton expanded on what was already a large power base within the party -- becoming not only the favored candidate of women but also of Hispanics and lower income, blue collar workers in Rust Belt States like Ohio and Pennsylvania.

By putting Clinton on the ticket, would that ease Obama's courtship of these key groups for the general election? Probably. But, it's also likely that these groups -- as well as a significant chunk of the activist and donor community -- would be loyal to Clinton first, Obama second.

Such a phenomenon would essentially establish something close to a co-presidency from day one with Clinton and her backers pursuing an agenda that could well at times be at odds with the agenda the Obama camp wanted to push.

There is clearly real trepidation about this possibility among the Democratic party rank and file. In the four surveys conducted by Quinnipiac for washingtonpost.com, voters were asked whether they believed Clinton as vice president would be willing to "enthusiastically promote Barack Obama's agenda at the expense of her own ideas or not?." Fewer than six in ten Democrats (yes, DEMOCRATS) said they thought she would do so in Michigan (53 percent), Minnesota (57 percent) and Wisconsin (56 percent). In Minnesota, 60 percent of Democrats said Clinton would subjugate her ideas in favor of Obama's agenda.

That Democrats are that suspicious of Clinton's ability to play second fiddle should be rightly regarded by Obama allies as a warning of what the future might hold if their candidate decides to name Clinton.

The Bill Factor

There is no argument more quickly offered when discussing the cons of an Obama-Clinton ticket than the negative impact former President Bill Clinton might have on the ticket.

In the battleground surveys, more than 20 percent of Democrats and roughly four-in-ten independents said that the former president could be a "problem" for an Obama administration, a surprisingly large number given the former chief executive's sky-high approval ratings coming into the 2008 race.

Pressed on why Bill Clinton would be such a "problem," there is far less unanimity of opinion. Some suggest that his behavior in the primary -- angry, self-absorbed, controversial -- is an indicator of how he could push the ticket off message if his wife was vice president. Others point to the lukewarm endorsement of Obama offered by Clinton this week ("President Clinton is obviously committed to doing whatever he can and is asked to do to ensure Senator Obama is the next president of the United States," said spokesman Matt McKenna) as a sign that the former president remains bitter about the way in which the primary played out and would undermine Obama if his wife was the pick. And yet still others wonder about the impact his behavior out of office -- as detailed by Vanity Fair's Todd Purdum - could have on the ticket.

Whether any of the above doubts are based on reality or, as often is the case with the Clintons, rumor and innuendo, is besides the point. Obama currently leads McCain in national polling, is advertising in 18 states including 14 won by Bush in 2004 and is likely to enjoy at least a two-to-one spending advantage over his Republican opponent in the fall. Given those advantages, why would he want to take the risk of putting the Clintons -- because that most assuredly would be what picking Hillary would mean -- on the ticket?

Agree? Disagree? What did we miss in making the case against Clinton? Feel free to offer your thoughts in the comments section.

By Chris Cillizza  |  June 27, 2008; 1:00 PM ET
Categories:  Veepstakes  
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