Last Night's Clinton / Obama Lovefest: Who Needs Whom More?

02/01/2008 03:56 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Let me start by saying that it's bizarre being in the press room for a debate. No doubt many (though perhaps not all) of the reporters, columnists, and bloggers in the press room have a horse in the presidential race whom, somewhere beneath that veneer of objectivity, they're personally pulling for. And, I'm sure that a few in the room last night--because it's the liberal media, right?--were rooting for Senator Clinton or Senator Obama. Surrounded by a mostly stoic press corps, however, you wouldn't have known it, save for a few cracked smiles among the unwashed masses (read unaffiliated bloggers whom no one expects to be neutral).

A few days ago, I wrote about which of the Democratic candidates is best suited, in terms of the demographics they attract, to lead the party into November and into the generation beyond. Retroactive spoiler alert: I chose Obama. (Clinton supporters, feel free to recoil in horror and vent in the comments section.) Here's the thing, though; watching the debates tonight, I know that both candidates would do an admirable and highly competent job as Commander In Chief. But I stand by my earlier assessment that because Senator Obama has drawn new voters into his tent that he is best positioned to compete against the Republican nominee, particularly if he is Senator McCain.

All this makes the final question of the debate from Wolf "That was a Swipe!" Blitzer an interesting, but complicated, one. Last night we saw a kinder, gentler debate, which logically gives rise to the question of a "dream ticket" (query whether Blitzer would have asked it had we seen a replay of the South Carolina slugfest). And even if the race regains some of its acrimony, the possibility of a "dream ticket" will remain a distinct possibility; even John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson were able to set aside their war of words and unite at the 1960 convention.

So with that in mind, let's look at some of the mental and practical barriers to Obama/Clinton (ok, relax, or Clinton/Obama) unity.

First, there's ego. Senator Clinton was the frontrunner from the get-go and ran her campaign as one of inevitability (that is, until it wasn't so inevitable anymore). A second place finish and her name below Obama's on bumper stickers all across America would not be her idea of a successful campaign. This is not to say that her longtime frontrunner status entitles her to the top of the ticket. That's for the voters to decide. But, the idea that a relative newcomer could displace her and that she would accept the vice presidency seems somewhat far-fetched. After all, the 1990s were, at least according to her campaign rhetoric, a de facto vice presidency. Would she be willing to swallow her pride and become Obama's running mate?

Conversely, there's the looming issue that whoever would play second fiddle in a Clinton campaign might in fact be relegated to third fiddle by an overeager and overbearing Mr. Clinton. Would Obama want to trade his position as an extraordinarily popular Senator for a spot beneath Mrs. and Mr. Clinton? Or is that a position best suited for a party loyalist (no, I didn't say milquetoast) who would jump at the chance to be in the national spotlight? For Obama, would eight years be too long to wait, and is the vice presidency still the springboard to the big dance that it once was? I'd love to be a fly on the wall for that negotiation: "So, Hillary, I'm concerned about Bill...."

Whatever the merits or possibility of a united Democratic ticket, one conclusion seems inescapable: Clinton needs Obama more than Obama needs Clinton. Should she become the nominee, Clinton will need Obama and his fervent supporters in November. Not only does Obama appeal to liberal Democrats, but he has proved uncanny in his ability to mobilize anti-war moderate voters, those who have never before participated in the political process, and those attracted to the progressive post-partisan agenda that Obama champions. Indeed, Obama has attracted a passionate grassroots and volunteer force (you need look no further than the huge amount of donors giving to the campaign in small increments) that recalls Howard Dean's, but one that actually converted that broad-based and cross-over support into an Iowa victory.

In the spin room last night, I made my way to the nucleus of the press circle surrounding Clinton adviser Mark Penn and I asked him if, given Obama's ability to increase the size of the electoral pie for the Democrats, Clinton needs Obama more than he needs her. Penn responded (based on my best shorthand notes without a recorder), "Either nominee will generate new votes. In Florida there was a record turnout for Senator Clinton. So you're seeing her attract a tremendous amount of supporters as well." While Clinton took the Florida vote by a decisive margin, that total requires an asterisk given the candidates (mostly) honored pledge not to campaign in the Sunshine State. And, when comparing the Democratic winner's votes in South Carolina and Florida as a percentage of the total Republican turnout, Obama's South Carolina votes represented 67% of the South Carolina GOP total compared to Clinton's Florida votes making up 45% of the Florida GOP total. Moreover, the combined Florida votes for McCain and Romney (1,291,696) easily best Clinton's Florida total (857,208), whereas Obama's South Carolina haul (295,091) tops McCain and Huckabee's combined take (279,723).

While Penn did his best to play up the Florida non-contest, Obama's comparative drawing power is undeniable. And regardless of how you crunch the numbers, if nominated, Clinton will need Obama's passionate grassroots organization to augment her own. This recalls the argument that Obama attracts many voters who would otherwise not vote for Clinton (or vote at all), whereas the Clinton voters I know are excited by Obama, and would have less difficulty transferring their passion for her to him.

The glow from the last Democratic love fest in Las Vegas quickly gave way to rancorous campaigning in South Carolina. Whether the goodwill and party unity on display in Hollywood can last will depend in large part on how Senator Clinton balances her desire to win with the necessity to eventually convert Barack's voters--many of whom are not traditional Democratic voters and would not support a ticket whose bumper stickers do not include the name Obama, be it in first (or second) position.