Barack Obama's selection of a vice-presidential running mate is an easy and obvious thing in the minds of many. To wit, he can do nothing but bring Hillary Rodham Clinton onto the ticket. He simply must do so, the logic goes, if he hopes to have a chance of winning the general election. It is a hard conversation to have during this still uncertain period of post-primary reconciliation, but have it we must: This line of thinking is wrong. Although an Obama-Clinton ticket would mollify the most zealous Clinton's supporters, it would actually weaken his (and therefore the Democratic Party's) chances of success in the fall.
First and foremost, the Obama candidacy has been about change, especially changing the insider, special-interest-focused way that many Americans perceive Washington as doing business. Hillary Clinton, whose own campaign was originally premised on her claim to deep Washington experience, may well be the poster-child for politics as we have known it. To partner with Clinton, therefore, would completely undercut the ideas and themes that brought such coherence, energy and vision to the Obama candidacy. A Washington outsider cannot claim to be the champion of change if partnered with the ultimate Washington insider.
But Clinton not only symbolizes Washington politics as usual; honesty requires us to admit that she is a deeply-polarizing national figure. A key element of Obama's change ethos has been his appeal to Independents and open-minded Republicans. Unfortunately, while teaming with Clinton might unify core Democrats, it would seriously jeopardize the bipartisan aspirations of the Obama candidacy. Too many Independents and an even larger fraction of Republicans have deep reservations about the Clintons. Particularly in a contest against John McCain, Obama must be able to make a credible appeal to Independent voters and to the disaffected Republicans who have grown sick of the influence of the most conservative elements of the GOP. Hillary as VP nominee would create another troubling Washington continuity as well: It would allow Republicans to surface again all the old baggage and scandals of the Bill Clinton administration. At this critical juncture, none of us wants to see a campaign return to a discussion of impeachment, pardons, blue dresses and blow jobs. Republicans surely would have been running on some version of this collection of issues if Hillary Clinton had actually won the nomination. There is good reason to believe the same polarizing distractions would be deployed if Hillary were the vice-presidential nominee.
Second, there are even more ways in which Bill Clinton would become a burden for a Barack-Hillary team. Bill Clinton possesses a number of qualities that endear him to a large number of Americans and make him still a commanding figure on the national political stage. However, working effectively and self-effacingly for a team led by someone else does not appear to be in Bill Clinton's skill set. On more than a few occasions during the primary season, Bill seemed to be doing more harm than good to Hillary's cause.
Beyond his actions on the campaign trail itself, as the recent Vanity Fair article pointed out, Bill Clinton's appetites and foibles, for lack of a better phrase, do not seem to have diminished since leaving the White House. His questionable choice of associates and clients would, sadly, become fodder for discussion. Obama does not need or deserve to be distracted by such things in the tough campaign that lies ahead.
Lastly, and I know this will distress many Clinton fans, but it would raise serious questions about Obama's strength of character if he chose as a running mate someone who came within a hair's breadth of speculating about the possibility of his assassination and who in the minds of many tried to force herself onto the ticket.
In politics, to be sure, it pays to have a short memory, for some things, but not for anything and everything. Clinton's belated but gracious concession and endorsement speech notwithstanding, I do not believe we ever heard an adequate explanation or apology for these remarks.
Choosing a running mate other than Hillary does not mean the party will remain fractured. Let's set aside one widespread misperception. Too much media discourse over the past two to three months treated the primary campaign season as if a vote for Hillary was a vote against Obama and vice-versa. False. These were DEMOCRATIC primaries. There is strong reason to expect most Democratic voters, including those who cast ballots for Hillary Clinton to maintain their fundamental party loyalty. This is particularly true in a general election contest that will feature pretty clear-cut differences in social, economic and foreign policy approaches between the Democrat Obama and the Republican McCain.
To be sure, there appears to be more than a few ardent feminists who believe that Obama derailed what should have been the first woman to secure a major-party nomination for president. Let's be direct: No one is entitled to a major-party presidential nomination. That is something that must be won under the rules established by the party. However you slice it, moreover, this contingent does not represent a large enough segment of the electorate for Obama to choose Hillary as his running mate. Especially not in the light of the other costs of doing so.
What should guide Obama is pragmatism. Such pragmatism will focus on finding a clearly-qualified individual, man or woman, who brings other positive qualities to the ticket and no baggage. There are a number of contenders on the horizon, and happily I can say this includes some prominent women such as Gov. Kathleen Sebelius of Kansas. Figures such as Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia, who can shore up his foreign policy and military credentials, and possibly his appeal to independent voters, should also rank highly on any list of possible contenders.
The real work of building a sense of connections, healing and common purpose between the Obama and Clinton camps must continue. Furthermore, it is clear that Hillary Clinton can and should play a substantial role in the fall campaign. As the protracted primary campaign and her successes at the end show, she brings acute intelligence, real tenacity and deep political sophistication to all that she does. And certainly no one can doubt that she will continue to be a leader of considerable stature, particularly on a major issue such as health care. Yet putting her on the ticket is plainly not the best way for her to advance the cause of a Democratic victory in November.
Lawrence Bobo is the W.E.B. Du Bois Professor of Sociology and of African and African-American studies at Harvard University.