The third banana option

Yesterday, Scott and John were pretty firm in their conviction that Barack Obama would decline an offer to run for vice president on a ticket headed by Hillary Clinton. I don’t disagree with their conclusion, but I’m perhaps a little less quick to rule out the possibility.
To understand why, we need to consider the context in which such an offer might plausibly be presented to Obama. That context is one in which Obama has been staggered by decisive defeats in late primaries, say in Pennsylvania, Florida, and Michigan. He still commands a small lead in delegates (let’s assume), but party leaders have concluded that the bloom is off the Obama rose, and Clinton has a better chance of defeating McCain. They have also concluded, however, that her chance of defeating McCain is appreciably diminished if Obama isn’t on the ticket.
Obama could thumb his nose at his party’s leaders on the theory that, if Clinton loses, he’ll be well-positioned to fill the void next time and that, if she wins, he’ll be the leading contender in eight years. But he will have to consider that if Clinton loses a close election, he’ll be blamed by party leaders and many party regulars. That may not matter if he retains his overall mystique with voters. But in the scenario I’ve described — the only one in which he’ll be asked by “the party” to take the vice presidency — he’s already seen how fickle “mystique” can be.
Moreover, part of Obama’s mystique stems from the perception that he’s a unifying figure. But if the Democratic party cannot be unified this year, and if his petulance is the cause of the disunity, the current perception of Obama will be replaced by a rather less happy (though perhaps more accurate) one. After all, how is Obama going to bridge the gap between Republicans and Democrats (not to mention liberals and conservatives) if he can’t bridge the virtually non-existent gap between himself and Hillary? At a minimum, a sizeable number of female Democrats probably will never forgive Obama if they see him as responsible for a McCain victory over Clinton.
Being Hillary’s vice president carries with it a large enough downside that Obama might well reject the prospect out of hand under any circumstances. He might also calculate that the super-delegates are bluffing when they say they’ll put Clinton over the top despite his lead in the regular delegate count. But a weakened Obama might be tempted by the number two position coupled with the desire not to be the fall-guy in November.
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