Hillary For Vice President?

My recent suggestion, acting in the guise of a partisan Democrat, that Hillary Clinton should challenge President Obama for the party nomination, generated a huge amount of traffic and prompted debate across the blogosphere (see here and here and here and here). Even the French joined the debate.  The comments to that and a follow up post continue coming in. Many of you are suggesting that rather than challenge the President and risk splitting the party, the better option would be for Obama to put Clinton on the ticket as vice president, with Biden moving over to State or to some other position.  That possibility has gained media traction in recent days (see here and here  and here) in light of the growing signs that Obama is electorally vulnerable.  In considering this option, I have one crucial question:

What’s in it for Clinton?

I understand the upside for the President. Right now – and no one can project how things will look a year from now – but right now I would put his odds at winning reelection at less than 50%.  In the wake of the debt deal, continued volatility in the stock market, and the hammering he took in the Republican debate in Iowa, his approval ratings have fallen 10% since June to about 40%, the lowest of his presidency, and they could very well go lower.  No president has won reelection with approval ratings this low.

In contrast, Hillary has seen her popularity climb above 60% after almost three years as Obama’s Secretary of State.  By putting Clinton on the ticket, Obama supporters hope that he might benefit on the campaign trail from her higher approval ratings, particularly among key constituencies, including older women and white working class voters among which his support his weak. Moreover, the argument goes, she is more likely than Obama to attract independent voters.

If we look at the electoral map there’s roughly a dozen states totaling some 155 electoral votes that will likely be in play in 2012.  Among them are the big three of Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida – all states in which Clinton bested Obama in 2008, and in which his popularity lags today.  Again, it’s possible that her stronger support in these states among independents and working class voters might bolster his electoral chances.

Finally, Clinton would “neutralize” the gender issue should the Republican nominee be Palin or Bachmann, or if either of those two women were on the Republican ticket as the vice president.  And she would easily best them in a V.P. candidate debate.

But even if we buy these arguments – and longtime readers know that I am skeptical that vice presidential choices have much electoral impact – I still see no upside for Clinton.  Obama supporters say it will put her in line to make a run for the presidency in 2016.  But she’s already at the top of the Democrat candidate list – why would serving as Obama’s “lady in waiting” for four years bolster her political profile?  And that assumes Obama wins reelection. If he loses, after she dives into the political mud on his behalf in a failed political campaign, she could emerge considerably weaker.  And she has to then defeat an incumbent Republican.

It seems to me that the Hillary-for-VP argument is being driven by Obama’s interests, not hers.  Indeed, if the argument that her presence would strengthen the Democratic ticket is as strong as Obama’s supporters claim it is, it leads inevitably to one conclusion: she should be heading that ticket.

And the only way to do that is if Obama steps down – or if she challenges him for the Democratic nomination.

But, I already said that.


  1. Professor Dickinson,
    As we all know polls are fickle and could change dramatically in a year or even in a month. Shouldn’t the Democrats hunker down and support Obama? The liberals, and I consider myself one, are crucifying him to the delight of the Republicans. They are actually agreeing with the “right wingers” that he is weak—how crazy is that?! I won’t go through all his accomplishments, since you know what they are, but I voted for him because of his ability to compromise, his steady nature an his smarts. His mantra has always been let’s work together. He can not change that, it’s gold. He has also shown us that he can be as tough as nails by ordering the killing of the pirates and Osama Bin Laden. In one of your posts you made light of the fact that Obama’s supporters believe he goes for the long game. He does. And he has said so many times. He has also kept most of the promises he made during the campaign. He did not close Quantanamo because he COULD NOT after the Republicans and Democrats (!) voted not to allow “enemy combatants” into the US. He inherited the worse fiscal crisis in recent history (some compare it to when Reagan took office, that’s not true ), worse than anyone even knew at the time of his election and all the Democrats can do is join the Republican feeding frenzy? The Republicans would never do this to their president. And, I haven’t even mentioned the blatant racism of the tea party (how about Perry’s “dark cloud” comment?), who I never heard hide nor hair of when Bush was racking up the debt. I’m amazed that Obama can stay as focused and calm as he is. But when you are a black man in the United States, you learn that trait very early in life. Wenke

  2. A guess: assuming that the Obama-Clinton ticket wins in 2012, Clinton could expect and demand a strong endorsement from Obama in 2016. The value of this would not be Obama’s endorsement itself, but rather the support of the party elites who have been behind Obama from the beginning. At the very least, it could keep them from looking at 2016 candidates other than Clinton.

  3. Matt, if Hillary had any ambitions for a 2016 run at the White House, what does she gain by being a private citizen for the four years leading up to it? Wouldn’t the leverage of the vice presidency be a far more advantageous role, and worth the political risk of running with Obama?
    Also, she clearly cares about her historical legacy (“18 million cracks in the glass ceiling”) and being the first female in that role would be significant.

  4. Do you think that the Obama campaign will still choose to replace Biden on the ticket even if Clinton decides to forego being the 2012 Democratic VP candidate?

  5. As anyone who has read the comments under Run Hillary Run will know…..I think Hillary as VP is lacking in intelligence and also demeaning. Why would anyone think she would shore up an Obama ticket that is almost destined to fail. There will be no Hillary in 2016 (even if she was still interested) when he loses the White House next year.

    I don´t know what we can do (like minded people) to get her attention. Then again I am no so naieve as to think her team isn´t weighing the options.

    I have called Bill Clinton´s office about once a week for the past year (yes, I´m the stalker) and finally they told me to send Matt´s blog to the press office and I did.

    Anyway…no VP for Hillary!

  6. Wenke,

    Good points all. Keep in mind that Obama’s slide in the polls is actually based more on losing independents than Democrats; although support among Democrats has slipped some, he still remains very popular with them, and for the reasons you cite. And despite progressives’ complaints about the debt deal, most Democrats, in the end, supported it. Finally, it is far too early to write him off for the 2012 elections – we are not even at a point where we can begin making realistic projections. The question remains, however: does Hillary help him more than Joe as V.P? Because this is going to be a very close election.

  7. Gerald – Of course, your first assumption is the critical one, and it must be weighed against the not unrealistic possibility that the Obama-Clinton ticket loses in 2012. A second assumption is that Obama would endorse her in 2016 – historically, retired presidents tend to stay out of the primary battle within the party, although if she’s the nominee he would clearly stump for her. Third, we need to remember that that party elites backed Clinton, not Obama, at the start of the 2008. So, under the currently electoral system, having the party’s backing, while not insignificant, is not worth what it used to be.

  8. Alex – Who said she’d be a private citizen? And even if she is, Palin has shown that it is quite easy to stay in the media limelight, and make a lot of money, as a private citizen. On the other hand, how many sitting vice presidents in the 20th century have gone on to win the presidency? That’s right: one. George H. W. Bush. So, no, I don’t think it’s clear that the potential “leverage” of the vice presidency in 2016 is worth the risk of getting tagged as being part of the losing ticket in 2012. As for historical legacy, I suspect she finds being the first female president more enticing than the first female vice president.

  9. Mathew – Great question. Short answer: No. I say that because it’s not simply a question of dumping Joe, and all the controversy that goes with it (see Gerald Ford dumping Nelson Rockefeller in 1976). You also have to have a decent replacement. Who would it be?

  10. Sally – that, I think, has to be the logic that impels Hillary to jump in now, as opposed to 2016 – that her chances are weaker then if a Republican wins in 2012. So why wait?

    If you are a stalker, make sure you make it clear to the authorities that I had nothing to do with your proclivities.

  11. Matthew,

    But wasn’t the very shaky early support of party elites (Reid, etc.) one of the key problems of her 2008 campaign? (Admittedly, this was not as bad as taking February primaries and caucuses off.) It seems like solidifying that support would be important to any 2016 strategy. Also, Obama’s support could keep those party elites (using Bernstein’s wide definition) from looking elsewhere. Blocking out other candidates is as important as procuring them. I don’t know, maybe I’m misapplying the argument of The Party Decides.

  12. No, I think that’s the argument. But my read from 2008 is that no matter how solid one’s support among the party elite, they want to back a winner. Remember, it was the superdelegates that, following the early election returns, eventually deserted Hillary and put Obama over the top. Had she closed the deal early (by, as you note, not taking caucuses and February off), I suspect her support among elites would have appeared rock solid. Note as well that there likely will be no superdelegates in 2016. Given that, the most important thing she can do to hold on to party support is to demonstrate electoral viability.

    And, at the risk of repeating myself, I just don’t think presidential endorsements matter, in large part because they don’t come early enough in the process to make a difference. In fact, it’s amazing how little influence ex-presidents have. Truman tried to play kingmaker in the 1952 Democratic convention and failed. No ex-president has really tried to do so since. Eisenhower stumped for Nixon, but in a way that left doubt regarding how supportive he was. Reagan stayed out of the Republican battle in 1988 until Bush had the nomination wrapped up. I don’t think Obama will have much pull with party elites in 2016.

  13. Professor,

    Independents believe in compromise, so I would project they will come back to Obama.I don’t think it would sit well with the electorate if Obama dropped Joe Biden. Hillary 2016. Wenke

  14. The only way, I believe, she would end up his Vice President is if she fired off a Primary Challenge, it gained incredible steam (driven in part by her strong approval ratings), and Obama saw himself actually losing. Only then would he throw Joe overboard and invite Hillary to run as his VP. The animosity between them, still, should not be underestimated.

    But that doesn’t answer the question What’s in it for Hillary? If she were allowed to take a very visible, active role as VP, it could be worth it. If she were allowed to have unfettered access to the President when need be — instead of having to jump through all the hoops she has to jump through now as SoS –, it could be worth it. And if President Obama were to, without prodding, give credit when credit is due to her as VP, it might be worth it.

    As I don’t see Obama or his advisors doing any of that, I doubt she’d jump, choosing instead to either A) continue the Primary fight and become President or B) continue to bolster her image and approval ratings until 2016 and then run then as an “outsider”, albeit one who’s very familiar with what it’s like on the inside.

    Interesting to think that her and her advisors have been having this same — or a similar — conversation since at least 2009. :^)

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