Sure, the vice-presidential standoff between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton isn't the usual Dear Prudence bad-relationship fare, which runs more toward the wife who refuses to consummate the marriage or the boyfriend who gets a kick out of wearing diapers. But in figuring out the tricky task of how he preserves Clinton's dignity and wins the loyalty of her supporters while letting her know she will never, ever be on his ticket, Obama needs help. So, here's some unsolicited Prudie advice on ways to tell Clinton it's over.
It's not you. It's not me. It's him.
This is the strategy the Obama campaign has already floated. In a story in the Wall Street Journal, just after he captured enough delegates to become the party's nominee, Obama aides put out word that in order for Hillary to be considered for the vice presidency, both she and Bill would have to make public the details of their financial life, including the contributors to Bill's presidential library. The brilliance of this prerequisite is that it allows Obama to act as if he's seriously considering Hillary, but the dream ticket turns out to be just a hypnagogic hallucination when Bill refuses to release the information. Even if the Clintons consider calling Obama's bluff and agreeing to a document dump, there is a built-in fail-safe. Surely Bill has taken in so much questionable money that seeing every dollar of it will not only end all Hillary vice-presidency speculation, but result in calls for restrictions on the financial lives of former presidents.
It's not you. It's not me. It's them.
Explaining why Obama can't choose Hillary, Peggy Noonan wrote, "Her presence on the ticket would force the party to have two breakthrough moments when a rule of political life, and life in general, is: one breakthrough at a time." Britain's Guardian quoted Jimmy Carter saying an Obama-Clinton ticket would be a disaster and added: "[Carter's] comments are likely to be seized on by those Democrats who privately argue that the combination of a black man and a woman on a ticket will represent more change than the US electorate can swallow in one go." The problem is, Obama can't articulate any of this. Hillary is not going to bring an EEOC suit if she is passed over for vice president, but think of how she could stir up her edgy supporters if she is able to hint that the real reason is Obama's sexism. That the American public is not ready for a twofer is a case only Obama surrogates can make.
Actually, it is you.
In his memoir Dreams From My Father, Obama writes that when he was about 12, he stopped volunteering his mother's race, he writes, "when I began to suspect that by doing so I was ingratiating myself to whites." Obama is consumed with the idea of his own authenticity, and part of his appeal is the sense that when he speaks he doesn't first weigh every word on the diamond scale of political calculation. So, the most authentic, and least ambiguous, thing to do is to simply tell her that she's not going to be on his ticket. Of course he can do it artfully, perhaps by acknowledging to her that neither one of them is a vice-presidential type and that he wouldn't have expected to have been on her ticket had she won the delegate battle. But instead of keeping her hanging, he tells her straight and he tells her soon.
I'm just not that into you.
The best-seller He's Just Not That Into You notes that "if a (sane) guy really likes you, there ain't nothing that's going to get in his way." I don't recommend this approach, but Obama could do what men have always done when it turns out they're really not that interested: nothing. Hillary can have her friends tell him she'd love for him to call; she can try to let him know how great they'd be together. She can wait for the phone to ring ("You gave him my home and cell numbers, right, Lanny?"); and when it doesn't, she can rage that he's immature, or intimidated by strong women, or not ready for a relationship. But then one day she'll find out what everyone, all of a sudden, already knows: He can commit because he's actually chosen someone else.