Politics & Government

Clinton-Obama '08? There have been stranger tickets

President Ronald Reagan and Vice-President George Bush waved at the crowd at the 1984 Republican convention.
President Ronald Reagan and Vice-President George Bush waved at the crowd at the 1984 Republican convention. Reagan Presidential Library

WASHINGTON — Sure, Hillary Clinton says Barack Obama is too green and too naive to become president. And Obama's offended that second-place Clinton is talking about whom she might pick as her running mate.

But history shows that political adversaries sometimes suddenly embrace, become ticket-mates _and win. And a lot of experts and politicos — including some Clinton and Obama advisers, if one reads between the lines — don't rule that out this year.

Clinton spokesman Howard Wolfson, for instance, tempered his disdain for Obama with this caveat: "Senator Clinton will not choose any candidate who, at the time of the choosing, will not pass the commander-in-chief threshold, period. But we have a long time between now and Denver." Denver will host the party convention in late August.

Obama says he's not running for vice president and that Clinton's suggestions that they might end up on the same ticket are ill-advised, since he's still the front-runner.

But it's happened before, and sometimes it worked.

The most storied of these whirlwind courtships came in 1960, when primary foes John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson got together for what proved to be a winning ticket.

Johnson was the legendary Senate majority leader; Kennedy was the 43-year-old upstart. Kennedy's brother Bobby, the campaign manager, loathed Johnson. Johnson was hardly fond of either Kennedy, particularly since the young senator crushed the wily Texan in that year's primaries.

But, recalled Barbara B. Kennelly, the former Connecticut congresswoman whose father, John Bailey, was then Democratic Party chairman, the party needed to win Texas. And Johnson's wife, Lady Bird, was worried that her husband's Senate role would take a toll on his heart.

So the political odd couple joined forces, and it worked; the ticket won Texas and its 24 electoral votes and prevailed in a cliffhanger election.

The most successful union of ideological rivals came 20 years later. Ronald Reagan ran as a die-hard conservative. George H.W. Bush was the darling of GOP moderates. They fought through the winter and spring, and in the end, even though Bush had dubbed Reagan's tax-cut plan "voodoo economics" and expressed sympathy for abortion rights, he accepted Reagan's invitation to form a joint ticket.

"It was a shotgun wedding," said David Carney, who served as White House political director for George H. W. Bush and political director for selecting a vice president for Bob Dole's 1996 presidential campaign.

"Politics trumped — they wanted to win. They understood they had to unite the party, and (incumbent Jimmy) Carter was vulnerable. Bush's knowledge of foreign affairs complemented Reagan's domestic agenda. And Bush came from four states."

Bush lived in Texas, was born in Massachusetts, grew up in Connecticut and had a family home in Maine.

History also suggests that sometimes no union can save a ticket burdened with bigger political problems. Democrat John Edwards seemed a logical choice in 2004 to become John Kerry's choice after he proved popular in the South and was Kerry's toughest challenger, but in the end, Edwards couldn't even carry his own state, North Carolina, for the ticket.

In 1976, Republican Gerald Ford thought he could unify warring moderates and conservatives by putting Dole on the ticket, but Dole's slashing style proved a liability, and they lost a close race.

In 1992, the rules of picking a vice president changed dramatically.

Bill Clinton set the new standard when he picked Al Gore, a young senator from a neighboring state, defying conventional ticket-balancing formulas. The two were mirror images of each other — young, Southern, moderate white men. "The theory was that you pick the person you think is best suited to be president," regardless of geography, ethnicity or ideology, said John Geer, editor of the Journal of Politics.

The tactic worked and gave Democrats their first two-term presidency since Franklin D. Roosevelt.

President Bush followed it in 2000 when he chose Dick Cheney. Another two-term winner ensued.

This year, a ticket uniting Clinton and Obama would have to overcome one last taboo: "It would not have one of the traditional characteristics of a presidential ticket," said Joan McLean, a politics and government professor at Ohio Wesleyan University. That is, neither is a white male. Like a lot of people, McLean wonders if Clinton or Obama is willing to take that risk.

Some key Democrats dismiss the idea entirely.

"I think that ticket either way is impossible," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., told New England Cable News. "I think that the Clinton (campaign) has fairly ruled that out by proclaiming that Senator McCain would be a better commander in chief than Obama. I think that either way is impossible."

At this stage, no one knows what ticket the Democrats may end up with; there are too many variables, too many personality clashes.

"There's no easy answer right now," McLean said.

GREAT MOMENTS IN FORCING AWKWARD PRESIDENTIAL-VICE PRESIDENTIAL TICKETS

1840. The Democratic convention was so split over a ticket-mate for President Martin Van Buren that a special committee was formed to address the issue. It wound up making no recommendation. State officials were left to run whomever they wanted in their states, so Van Buren essentially ran without a running mate.

1900. New York's Republican boss wanted Gov. Theodore Roosevelt, a reformer, out of his state, so he eagerly boosted TR's vice presidential bid. Roosevelt got it, even though President William McKinley's campaign manager disliked him.

1932. Franklin Roosevelt sewed up the Democratic presidential nomination after winning John Nance Garner's backers. Garner, then the speaker of the House, wound up with the vice presidential nomination. He later called the office "not worth a bucket of warm s---."

1948. The Republican dream ticket: To run against unpopular Harry Truman, the GOP nominated New York Gov. Thomas E. Dewey for president and California Gov. Earl Warren for vice president. They lost.

1952. Dwight Eisenhower needed someone with strong ties to the Republican Party's fervent anti-communist wing, so he picked 39-year-old California Sen. Richard M. Nixon.

1960. Lyndon Johnson, according to one account, "answered with a single early expletive" when advisers brought up the idea of going on the ticket with nemesis John F. Kennedy. But in the end he accepted, to the dismay of JFK's brother and campaign manager Robert F. Kennedy, who loathed him. Johnson helped carry Texas' crucial 24 electoral votes.

1968. Nixon, figuring third-party Southerner George Wallace was as much a rival as Democrat Hubert Humphrey, pursued a "Southern strategy" in part by putting little-known Maryland Gov. Spiro T. Agnew on the ticket. Nixon would up winning six Southern and border states in a close election — though he lost Maryland.

1976. Gerald Ford, after barely winning the presidential nomination against conservative favorite Ronald Reagan, tries to placate the convention by adding Bob Dole to the ticket. "You just lost the election," strategist Drew Lewis reportedly told Ford. He was right.

1980. Reagan adds moderate George H.W. Bush, who had blasted Reagan's tax cuts as "voodoo economics," to the ticket. Bush becomes a loyal supporter, the GOP convention ends in harmony, and they cruise to a smashing victory.

1992. Bill Clinton's running third in early summer polls when he picks Al Gore as his vice president, confounding conventional wisdom because the two are so much alike — young, moderate, Southern white men. But the double-down dare worked, as the ticket gained instant popularity and went on to win a three-way race in the fall.

2004. John Kerry adds John Edwards, a senator from North Carolina and his strongest rival, to the ticket. But the two never click, and North Carolina votes Republican.

Sources: Congressional Quarterly "Guide to U.S. Elections," staff reporting.

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