History suggests an Obama-Clinton ticket could work.

The history behind current events.
May 22 2008 7:00 AM

Cold Fusion

History suggests an Obama-Clinton ticket could work.

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Barack Obama vs. Hillary Clinton

For all the excitement he has generated, Barack Obama—should he maintain his delegate lead over Hillary Clinton—will be the Democratic Party's weakest standard-bearer since primaries became the necessary route to securing the presidential nomination. No candidate has ever concluded these preliminary contests with so many rank-and-file Democrats against him. Obama badly needs to win over Clinton supporters, some of whom deeply resent the demonization of her as hysterical, ruthless, and racist and are talking of bolting or staying home in November.

The easiest way for Obama to unify the party would be to make Clinton his running mate. Indeed, the idea of a "dream ticket" or "unity ticket" has been in the air for months. CNN's Wolf Blitzer proposed it, to deafening applause, in January. In March, Mario Cuomo pushed the idea in the Boston Globe.

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But do unity tickets happen? And do they work? Primaries have had a major influence on nominations since only 1952, and in that period the top two rivals have reconciled on a dream ticket just twice, when John F. Kennedy chose Lyndon Johnson as his running mate in 1960 and when Ronald Reagan brought George Bush onboard in 1980. That rarity doesn't bode well for the creation of an Obama-Clinton ticket. It does, however, augur well for victory for an Obama-Clinton ticket. For both the Kennedy-Johnson and Reagan-Bush fusions offer models of how a divided party can turn debilitating rifts into assets.

The Kennedy-Johnson ticket represented the triumph of cold pragmatism over chilly personal feelings. In 1960, Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson wielded more power than anyone in Washington other than President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Early on, he had regarded his younger colleague with admiration. But as JFK emerged as a front-runner for 1960, Johnson's view of his Senate colleague soured. He made it no secret that he thought Kennedy too young, too ambitious, and too unaccomplished for the presidency.

Kennedy reciprocated in kind. To gain credibility, JFK chose to compete in the 1960 primaries, while Johnson counted on a deadlocked convention that would let him call in favors amassed from his years of Senate deal-making—still a plausible nomination strategy in those days. Led by Bobby Kennedy, JFK's camp taunted LBJ for sitting out the preliminary contests.

As the July 11 convention neared, things got uglier. Johnson tried to orchestrate a "stop Kennedy" movement, hoping that those delegates loyal to him and those supporting Adlai Stevenson could together deny Kennedy a majority on the first ballot and create an opening. Johnson and his surrogates cast doubt on JFK's electability, on his capacity for hard work, and, most controversially, on his claims to be in good health. On July 4, Johnson ally India Edwards publicly stated (correctly) that Kennedy had Addison's disease, a severe kidney ailment. Bobby Kennedy denied the charge, the New York Times denounced it as dirty campaigning, and the ploy backfired. Meanwhile, Ted Kennedy and others whispered that LBJ hadn't recovered from his 1955 heart attack.

Johnson formally announced his candidacy the next day. The mudslinging continued. Bobby accused LBJ of relying on the Teamsters union to muscle his way to the nomination, while Johnson brought up Joseph Kennedy's support for the appeasement of Hitler. More promisingly, LBJ challenged Kennedy to debate before the Massachusetts and Texas delegations to the convention. Kennedy accepted but never let his claim on the nomination be questioned. As Johnson carped about Kennedy's absenteeism from the Senate and his civil rights record, a self-satisfied JFK positioned himself above the fray. The next night, as the roll was called, and the delegates began stating their preferences, Johnson foresaw the outcome and left the convention floor. By the time Kennedy secured his 806-to-409 lead in the delegate count, a dejected LBJ was in his hotel room, seemingly destined to enjoy only enmity from the Kennedys in the future.

But since his own nomination had been uncertain, Kennedy hadn't chosen a running mate. He didn't think Johnson would want the vice presidency—arguably a demotion—but neither that surmise nor the pre-nomination ill will dashed the possibility. Some Kennedy aides thought LBJ would help the ticket more than any other running mate, given his pull with farmers and Southerners, particularly Texans. A series of twists and turns (laid out in its most comprehensive and comprehensible form in Jeff Shesol's book Mutual Contempt) saw the prospect of the unity ticket rise and fall and rise again. Johnson was nominated the next day, though Kennedy's waffling left considerable bad feeling.

The choice of a vice president rarely tips an election, but in 1960 it surely did. (When a race is as close as 1960—Kennedy beat Nixon by 0.2 percent—any number of things can tip the election.) Johnson proved to be a zealous and effective campaigner, even as he privately badmouthed Kennedy to reporters. His firm control of the Texas state party organization was critical to the Democrats' success there. His very presence on the ticket probably helped the Democrats win six other Southern states that would soon become reliably Republican.

If Johnson's value to the Democrats in 1960 is undeniable, George Bush's importance to Ronald Reagan's victory in 1980 is less clear-cut. But it, too, showed the wisdom of reconciliation after a hard-fought nomination battle. One of the most hostile altercations came just before the New Hampshire primary. Bush, having won the Iowa caucuses, wanted to debate Reagan one-on-one, but he then refused to share the costs, leaving Reagan to foot the bill. (Outside sponsorship might have constituted a donation to the two front-runners' campaigns.) But on the night of the debate, Reagan showed up with the other Republican contenders in tow. When the moderator, a local newspaperman named Jon Breen, tried to silence him for speaking up on behalf of the excluded Republicans, Reagan memorably growled, "I'm paying for this microphone, Mr. Green." (Reagan, it happens, was recalling an eerily apt line from Spencer Tracy in State of the Union, accounting for why he altered the moderator's last name.) The footage of an aggressive Reagan and a paralyzed Bush played on TV news for another 48 hours—humiliating Bush and confirming in Reagan's mind his adversary's reputation as a wimp. Reagan took New Hampshire easily.

Apart from John Anderson, an old-style liberal Republican who stayed in the race as a gadfly, the other candidates soon dropped out. Though Reagan won most of the remaining contests, Bush stayed competitive throughout the spring. He continued to do well among party regulars troubled by Reagan's often strident right-wing rhetoric, his lack of foreign-policy experience, and his divisive presidential bid at the 1976 convention, which some felt had contributed to Gerald Ford's ultimate defeat by Jimmy Carter. Stressing his own conservative credentials, Bush tried to define his opponent as out of the mainstream—famously mocking his embrace of what Bush called "voodoo economics." But Reagan soldiered on, and in late May, Bush dropped out.

Bush would have been the natural choice for vice president had not efforts been made to create a different "dream ticket"—one with former President Ford as Reagan's understudy. The Reagan-Ford negotiations rivaled the Kennedy-Johnson dance of 1960 in their intricacy, but they finally crumbled when Ford said in a live interview with Walter Cronkite that he envisioned something like a "co-presidency" (Cronkite's term). As a result, any reconciliation between party regulars and conservative activists came to rest on the selection of Bush.

Some players on both sides wondered if Bush, who had supported the Equal Rights Amendment and abortion rights, could run with a man who opposed both. And Reagan personally harbored other doubts. "If he can't stand up to that kind of pressure," he said to an aide, referring to the New Hampshire debate, "how could he stand up to the pressure of being president?" But the need for unity prevailed. When Reagan called with the offer, Bush happily agreed to endorse the party's (anti-abortion, anti-ERA) platform "wholeheartedly," and the two went on to victory. Although Reagan's 44-state blowout suggested that any running mate would have sufficed, the choice of Bush did, at a minimum, help make him palatable to moderate voters.

It's unclear whether Obama shares the qualities that Kennedy and Reagan showed in forging their unity tickets: the self-assurance not to fear being upstaged, the magnanimity to overlook the primary-season fisticuffs. And it's equally unclear whether Clinton would even want to sit through eight years of an Obama presidency and then, at age 68, endure another 16 months of hell of the sort she's now finally concluding—with no greater chance of emerging victorious. Surely, for her, the more gratifying course would be to achieve the historical first of having her name placed in nomination for the presidency at the Democratic convention and gaining a near-majority of ballots. With dignity, she could then pursue other distinctions, whether Senate majority leader or associate justice of the Supreme Court.

Then again, in 1960 the smart money said that Lyndon Johnson would never settle for the vice presidency, either.

David Greenberg, a professor of history and of journalism and media studies at Rutgers University, worked at the New Republic in the early 1990s as an intern, as managing editor, and as acting editor.

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