WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Just when it seemed on the last Tuesday of the presidential primary season that Hillary Clinton would bow to the inevitable, she enraged Democrats who expected her to start strengthening Barack Obama as nominee. During a conference call between Clinton and New York members of Congress, Rep. Nydia Velazquez suggested that only an Obama-Clinton ticket could secure the Hispanic vote. "I am open to it," Clinton replied, according to several sources.
That message, promptly made public, infuriated Democratic activists outside the Clinton camp. Clinton was horning in on the climax to Obama's amazing political feat. Worse yet, she was going public on a vice presidential bid she knows Obama does not want to offer. Talking about an unlikely dream ticket further slows the party unification process that Clinton's critics say comes two months too late because of her.
She showed that her exchange with Velazquez was no aberration by not delivering a concession speech Tuesday night. Her extraordinary bid for vice president is a new provocation by Hillary Clinton, keeping with her repeated insistence that she is electable -- an implication that Obama is not.
The backing for Clinton's attitude can be seen in my personal encounter early Tuesday morning. I bumped into a septuagenarian former congresswoman who was a staunch Clinton supporter. She told me she awakened that morning with the realization her candidate would not be nominated. Well known as a no-nonsense politician, now she showed another side: "I cried, really cried. We came so close -- so close."
Tears were shed that night by lower-income, less-educated women, but also by accomplished older professionals, such as this former congresswoman. They see Clinton as the culmination of their long struggle, with triumph snatched away by an untried, untested newcomer. They complain that, thanks to the Democratic Party's baroque procedures in picking a presidential nominee, Clinton has been defeated though she collected more popular votes than Obama and won most battleground states.
This resentment is reflected in a nationwide private poll this month by McLaughlin Associates, which usually works for Republican clients but is not connected with the McCain campaign. Polltaker John McLaughlin found a 49 percent to 38 percent edge by McCain over Obama among all women. That is an extraordinary result, running counter to a longtime Democratic advantage.
The conventional wisdom is that women, along with other Clinton backers, will be in the Democratic camp once Clinton actually concedes. But seasoned operatives for both presidential candidates privately advise that the length and closeness of the Democratic race make reconciliation much more difficult because Clinton did not leave the race once there was no clear path to the nomination for her.
Clinton backers who will now declare full support of the nominee in public take a different position when promised that their names will not be used. They frankly question whether Obama should be president. I asked one Democrat, a longtime political worker and sometime candidate for public office, whether he actually would vote for Obama. He paused, then replied: "Let me put it this way. I would sleep better if John McCain was president."
That is the atmosphere in which Clinton has now offered herself for the vice presidency. One of her supporters, prominent in Democratic politics for nearly half a century, saw the handwriting on the wall several weeks ago and approached Obama agents to suggest a unity ticket. "There was absolutely no interest -- none at all," he told me. "They wanted no part of it."
Washington lawyer Lanny Davis, an indefatigable advocate for Bill and Hillary Clinton over the years, on his own wrote Obama Tuesday night urging him "to select Sen. Clinton in recognition of the more than 17 million Democrats who supported her at the polls." Davis also talked about a petition drive to promote that goal. The Obama camp's response was not positive.
When I asked yesterday (Wednesday) a longtime friend of the Clintons who has been neutral in the presidential race what he thought of her performance Tuesday night, he declined to answer and suggested "we should watch what she says in the next 40 to 48 hours." He surely would not welcome more pressure, trying to force herself onto the national ticket.