WASHINGTON — Democrats are, of course, eager to know whether Barack Obama will ask Hillary Rodham Clinton to join his ticket. Running mates rarely matter in November, but Clinton's presence would. The unique dynamics of their divisive, 18-month primary campaign guarantee that she'd play an outsized role in determining Democratic prospects this fall -- in both good ways and bad.
But the fate of another big group is being overlooked in this early-summer parlor game of Democratic veepstakes: namely, Republicans. Specifically, John McCain, whose presidential campaign would be turned on its head if Clinton joined Obama’s ticket -- in good ways and bad.
Most importantly, Clinton’s presence on a Democratic ticket, even as No. 2, would erase overnight any lingering tensions that exist between McCain and his party’s die-hard base of conservative activists -- or at least mask them through November. Conservatives “distrust” McCain, but they “hate” Clinton. And hate is a far stronger motivator. It's a passion that would propel them to turn out for McCain on Election Day in a way no terrorist attack, Swift Boat ad or gay-marriage amendment ever could. Conservatives who flirted with former Rep. Bob Barr's long-shot Libertarian bid would be scared straight back into the GOP fold by the nightmare prospect of Clinton succeeding their beloved Dick Cheney.
Clinton would also provide McCain with a much-needed injection of funds into his cash-strapped operation. How easy is it to raise money by running against Hillary Clinton? Just ask Rick Lazio -- or, for that matter, Barack Obama. Of course, McCain would need that money and then some to compete with an Obama-Clinton machine. During their separate primary campaigns, the two Democrats raised more than $400 million. McCain has raised about one-fourth that amount. (As of today, Obama alone has raised $265 million to McCain’s $93 million).
With the conservative vote virtually locked up, McCain would also enjoy more wiggle room in his choice of a vice president. Freed of the short list of conservative darlings believed to hold his key to the White House, McCain could entertain more creative choices -- like Sen. Joe Lieberman, I/D-Conn., a hawk whose liberal social views nonetheless make him intolerable to some conservatives, or even New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg (I), who would relieve his financial woes. While he’s had far more time to focus on the task, McCain is likely to choose his running mate after Obama, especially if the “dream ticket” drumbeat refuses to subside, which allows him the luxury of reacting to the Democrat’s choice.
Video: Chuck Todd’s veepstakes guidelines McCain would also be more liberated to distance himself from his campaign's most debilitating albatross: George W. Bush, with whom he remains cordial these days for the sole purpose of avoiding a fight with the Right. With such feigned gentility gone, and a Clinton vying to return to national office, McCain could take up Obama's rhetoric attacking the dynastic culture of recent American presidential politics. Just imagine the GOP bumper sticker: “Bush-Clinton-Bush-Obama-Clinton.”
The fact that Clinton would dampen Obama’s case for change could also relieve McCain of any foolhardy plans he may have to embrace the “change” mantle himself.
But Clinton would pose some new problems for McCain, who hopes to take advantage of the current Democratic divide by aggressively courting her base of women, Hispanics and Reagan Democrats. Such groups, who backed Clinton strongly in the Democratic race, make up decisive voting blocs in key states like Colorado, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New Mexico, West Virginia, Missouri and Nevada. With Clinton on the ticket, McCain’s efforts would likely be far less fruitful.
Clinton could also spoil McCain’s dream of vying for the Electoral College’s grand prize: California. He’s running well there now, especially among Hispanics who support his moderate views on illegal immigration, and he has strong support from Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who while ineligible to serve as vice president could be a prominent figure on the campaign trail this fall -- and a possible McCain Cabinet member. But Clinton carried California comfortably on Super Tuesday, and she and her husband are treated like royalty there.
Clinton would give Obama a more forceful voice on the campaign’s No. 1 issue: the economy. One of Clinton’s more effective lines during debates went something like this: “I don’t know about you, but I thought things were pretty good in the ‘90s.” Voters agreed, consistently giving her the highest marks of all three candidates on handling the economy. Obama ranked second, followed by McCain, who himself admits he needs to sharpen his economic bona fides. With Clinton on the ticket, would he even bother? Or would Republicans simply try to steer the campaign’s entire debate toward the more comfortable terrain of national security?
It’s a mixed blessing, this much-discussed “dream ticket,” for everyone on the ballot this fall. If it becomes a reality, McCain’s response will be just as important as Obama’s.
Copyright 2012 by National Journal Group Inc.