The Dilemma

Posted: Jun 05, 2008 12:01 AM
The Dilemma

“Crawling at your feet, said the Gnat (Alice drew her feet back in some alarm), you may observe a Bread-and-butter-fly. Its wings are thin slices of bread-and-butter, its body is a crust, and its head is a lump of sugar.”

“And what does it live on?” “Weak tea with cream in it.”

— Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass

Some Democratic leaders are advancing the “dream ticket” scenario. “Put them together and they cannot lose,” they say. “I’m open to it,” she says.

This is the Obama dilemma. Having clinched the Democratic nomination, Senator Obama must now decide whether to invite Senator Clinton to join his ticket. Rejecting her will almost certainly alienate Mrs. Clinton’s most dedicated supporters who feel cheated by a convoluted nominating process. Ironically, if the Democrats employed the same straightforward nominating process as the Republicans, Mrs. Clinton would have clinched the nomination long ago.

Conversely, selecting Mrs. Clinton would almost certainly alienate the enthusiastic legions attracted to Mr. Obama as a new political leader who promised a break from old-style politics. It would be hard to select a running mate more representative of the old-style politics of division than Mrs. Clinton. No doubt, Mr. Obama took notice of her “victory speech” after he had locked-up the nomination on Tuesday night.

Some may say, that just like in Lewis Carroll’s story, Mr. Obama has seemingly become the bread-and-butter-fly and Mrs. Clinton the weak tea with cream. Without her, Mr. Obama will flounder. With her, his core support will dissolve. It seems the dream-like world Carroll created may swallow the Democratic Party and its presumptive nominee.

But before Democratic leaders rush to counsel Mr. Obama one way or the other, they should consider two things: 1. This election is eerily reminiscent of 1972 and 2. Both members of the “dream ticket” are incomplete — together or individually.

In 1972, the Democrats nominated George McGovern. On Election Day, President Nixon beat Mr. McGovern by 61%-38%, resulting in an absolute blowout of Nixon taking 49 states. While it’s extremely unlikely Mr. Obama would lose to Mr. McCain by the same 49-1 margin, the Democrats are embarking on a path with a proven history of defeat.

During 1972, in a friendly environment, Democrats demonstrated they had become weak on military and national security matters, and so they lost. Presidents Roosevelt, Truman, Kennedy, and Johnson all had been strong defense hawks. So had their party. But in 1972, Mr. McGovern and the Democrats were against the war.

Since the late 1960s, Democrats have won only when they follow a particular pattern. Jimmy Carter, a naval officer, narrowly won as a traditional Southerner. Bill Clinton, a left-leaning centrist Southerner, choose another left-leaning centrist Southerner who had served in Vietnam, Al Gore.

Their success has led almost every other Democratic nominee to try the same strategy. Governor Dukakis of Massachusetts, an Army veteran who served in Korea, picked Senator Bentsen of Texas who was a World War II combat veteran.

In 2000, Vice President Gore chose Senator Lieberman, who was a well-established defense hawk. Mr. Lieberman, devoutly Jewish, had condemned Bill Clinton’s personal immorality. Thus he was appealing to many values voters.

In 2004, Senator Kerry, a Vietnam combat veteran, chose John Edwards, a then-moderate Southerner from North Carolina. Each of these tickets was going for millions of voters who were churchgoing and gun-owning, who either had served in the military or were staunchly supportive of our troops.

The two times Democrats deviated from this pattern was in 1984, when Walter Mondale picked Geraldine Ferraro of New York, and in 1972, when Senator McGovern ran with Sargent Shriver. Those two elections share the dubious honor of both being 49-1 Republican victories, making them the most lopsided electoral landslides in American history.

Hardly a model for success.

To be fair, there are differences between 2008 and 1972, which (like 1984) a sitting Republican president sought re-election. In addition, Democrats had been out for four years, not eight. And the GOP brand was not as badly tarnished as it is today.

But there are many similarities: an unpopular war, and a record young voter turnout for the Democrats. And the Democrats, like in 1972, have nominated someone who did not win the popular vote in the primary.

There is one difference that does not help Democrats: Neither Mr. Obama nor Mrs. Clinton has served in uniform. Both Messrs. McGovern and Shriver were veterans. And Democrats now face not just a veteran, but a decorated war hero in John McCain.

Yet there is this fascination with the Obama-Clinton dream ticket. Should it happen, it could be an electoral nightmare for the Democrats. And if that ticket, the most liberal in American history, somehow wins, what kind of ultra-left mandate would they claim? At that point, all of Middle America would be taken “through the looking glass.”