When former Virginia Gov. Douglas Wilder first pitched the idea of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Vice President Joe Biden swapping jobs in 2012, it sounded like a ridiculous stunt. It still sounds like a stunt, but it's starting to sound a bit less ridiculous.
The Washington Post's Bob Woodward upped the ante this week when he reported that the idea is "on the table." And there's speculation that Clinton's core supporters are floating the idea to see if it catches on, encouraging commentators who pine for another Clinton presidency, like The Daily Beast's Tunku Varadarajan, who writes of a "growing sense that Hillary would have made a much, much better president than Obama."
But if people think that a billion Muslims worldwide would be more receptive to drone strikes raining down on Pakistan if we had a president not named "Hussein," or that a President Clinton — or even a President John McCain — would have let the American auto industry and worldwide banking go down the drain just because bailouts are unpopular with the voters, they should think again.
Where Clinton loyalists are right is that Clinton has traction with the (ahem) "hard-working Americans" whom Barack Obama struggled to attract in 2008 and needs for re-election. While this week's Gallup numbers show that Clinton can't challenge Obama for the Democratic nomination in 2012 — no Democrat can win without the support of the 91 percent of African Americans who still give Obama a favorable job rating — she'll eventually have to decide whether it's better for her 2016 prospects to join forces with her current boss or distance herself from him.
The Woodward theory is already being dismissed as an unsubstantiated distraction for the White House, but so what? It adds a wrinkle to a 2012 landscape that's quickly becoming pre-baked as a boring matchup between a politically tattered Obama and a bunch of lackluster Republican contenders.
If the idea of an Obama-Clinton ticket picks up steam, the calculations for each of the players are intriguing:
There's no brass ring in this deal for Biden, but there's really no lump of coal, either.
Biden's only must-do task — not saying anything sexist or condescending to Sarah Palin in their vice-presidential debate — was checked off on his win column back in 2008. He's rounded out a nice 35-year Senate career, including five years as Foreign Relations Committee chair, with his current stint as Obama's No. 2, and his résumé would be rounded out even more with a last lap as secretary of state. He could look at it as a demotion, or he could look at it as taking over a job originally held by no less a figure than Thomas Jefferson.
After their bruising Democratic primary battle in 2008, Obama couldn't tap Clinton as his running mate — if he had, he'd have been dogged by the charge that he couldn't win the White House without her help. But he's already won once with Biden, and Clinton has performed admirably as a key Obama subordinate.
Obama absorbed most of the heat for Democrats on Afghanistan, health care and the stimulus, so if he pulled Clinton onto the ticket for 2012, it wouldn't be a sign of weakness. It would be a reinforcement of his center-right flank and a sign that he's nimble enough to adjust his "strategery" to win again.
Considering that Obama carried health care reform — Clinton's signature issue — all the way up the hill that she couldn't get to the top of in 1994, and that her foreign-policy successes took place under Obama's aegis, joining him on the ticket seems like the least she could do.
The problem is, there's not much in it for her.
Although "first woman vice president" resonates more deeply than "third woman secretary of state," neither of those broken glass ceilings has the gleam of "first woman president." If Clinton hedges her bets for posterity, she could do worse than helping Obama out and putting "veep" on her résumé. But most likely, what she really wants is to become the second President Clinton. For that to happen, she doesn't need to be VP first.
The 2016 race sets up nicely for her any way you cut it. If she's VP, she automatically has the best credentials in the field. If she's still in the cabinet and Obama delivers an improved economy and makes strides toward Middle East peace, she can say she was a part of his team. If Obama's presidency fizzles, she can leave in 2012 or 2014 and run as the "I told you so" candidate. If Obama only has one term, there's a good chance she'll have more personal appeal than whoever winds up as the next Republican presidential nominee. She only loses if she's on a losing ticket in 2012.
For Clinton, it's the gamble versus the safe play.
She can hold out by refusing to cross-pollinate her brand with Brand Obama, or she can close ranks with her boss and try to help him win in 2012 — and in the process do what Sarah Palin couldn't: be the first woman elected to national office, and put herself on the doorstep of the White House.
David Swerdlick is a frequent contributor to The Root. Follow him on Twitter.
David Swerdlick is an associate editor at The Root. Follow him on Twitter.