WASHINGTON -- An axiom. When voters watch a presumptive presidential nominee considering this or that running mate, they think: What if the president dies? When the presumptive nominee considers this or that running mate, he thinks: What if I live?
Which brings us to the dotty idea that Barack Obama should choose to have Hillary Clinton down the hall in the West Wing, nursing her disappointments, her grievances and her future presidential ambitions while her excitable husband wanders in the wings of America's political theater with his increasingly Vesuvian temper, his proclivity for verbal fender benders and his interesting business associates. That this idea survived her off-putting speech Tuesday night, after Obama won the right to choose a running mate, is evidence that many Democrats do not fathom the gratitude that less-blinkered Americans feel for Obama because he has closed the Clinton parenthesis in our presidential history.
After some of the boilerplate geographic pitter-patter that today's candidates consider Periclean eloquence (" ... from the hills of New Hampshire to the hollows of West Virginia ... "), she obliquely but clearly identified herself as the person who would be "the strongest candidate and the strongest president" and, pointedly, the person most ready to "take charge as commander in chief." There is a fine line between admirable tenacity and delusional denial, and Clinton tiptoed across it.
Obama's choice of a running mate will be the first important decision he makes with the whole country watching, so it will be a momentous act of self-definition. If he chooses her, it will be an act of self-diminishment, especially now that some of her acolytes are aggressively suggesting that some unwritten rule of American politics stipulates that anyone who finishes a strong second in the nomination contest is entitled to second place on the ticket.
Behind the idea that Obama should run in harness with Clinton is this wobbly theory: Because the Republican Party is in such bad odor, if you unify the Democratic Party, that will suffice to win the election, and she is a necessary and sufficient catalyst of unity. But she is neither. She would be a potent unifier of John McCain's party, thereby setting the stage for exactly what the nation does not need, another angry campaign of mere mobilization rather than persuasion.