This commentary first appeared on AC360/CNN.COM on May 11, 2008.
By Carl Bernstein
Friends and close associates of both Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are now convinced that, assuming she loses the race for the presidential nomination, she is probably going to fight to be the vice presidential nominee on an Obama-for-president ticket.
Clinton "is trying to figure out how to land the plane without looking like surrender," a prominent figure in the Obama camp said Friday. This means, in all likelihood, bringing her campaign to a close in the next few weeks and trying to leverage her way onto an Obama ticket from a position of maximum strength, said several knowledgeable sources.
A person close to her, with whom her campaign staff has counseled at various points, said this week, "I think the following will happen: Obama will be in a position where the party declares him the nominee by the first week in June. She'll still be fighting with everybody -- the Rules Committee, the party leaders -- and arguing, 'I'm winning these key states; I've got almost half the delegates. I have a whole constituency he hasn't reached. I've got real differences on approach to how we win this election, and I'm going to press the hell out of this guy. ... Relief for the middle class, universal health care, etc.; I'm Ms. Blue Collar, and I'm going to press my fight, because he can't win without my being on the ticket.' "
Another major Democratic Party figure, who supports her for president, agreed: "It's not going to be a quiet exit. ... Obama has got a terrible situation. He marches to a different drummer. He won't want to take her on the ticket. But he might have to, even though the idea of Vice President Hillary with Bill in the background at the White House is not something -- especially after what [the Clintons] have thrown at him that he relishes. I believe she'll go for it."
However, several important Democrats aligned with Obama predicted that he -- and Michelle Obama -- will vigorously resist any Clinton effort to get on the ticket. Rather, Obama is more likely to try to convince Clinton to either stay in the Senate or accept another position in an Obama administration, should he win the presidency.
Several Clinton associates say there is still a ray of hope among some in her campaign: that a "catastrophic" revelation about Obama might make it possible for her to win the presidential nomination. But barring that, Hillary and Bill Clinton recognize that her candidacy is being abandoned and rejected by superdelegates whom she once expected to win over and that, even if she were to win the popular vote in combined primary states, she will almost certainly be denied the nomination.
In theory, the landing of Campaign Clinton by the end of the primaries -- in early June at the latest, without the prospect of a convention struggle -- would be good news from Obama's point of view and even from the perspective of close Clinton friends and associates who revere their candidate and worry about the legacy of Hillary and Bill Clinton.
However, from the perspective of both campaign camps, there is serious concern about the kind of landing she's aiming for and the precarious task of bringing her plane down, especially if she decides to seek the vice presidential nomination. There could be a number of different landings:
• Smooth and skillful, doing the Obama candidacy no further damage and perhaps restoring to relative health the legacy of and regard for Bill and Hillary Clinton in the Democratic Party.
• Explosive, setting down after the enemy has been carpet-bombed (an "October surprise in May"), something the Obama campaign believes may be less and less likely to come from his Democratic opponent because of the dangers to the party and the Clintons' reputation. Yet the Clinton campaign's search for damaging information and its hope that such information exists continues, according to knowledgeable sources. Strategist Harold Ickes, her premier tactical counselor, warned on the eve of the North Carolina and Indiana that Obama could be vulnerable to an "October surprise" by the McCain campaign.
• Missing the runway and destroying the Democratic village, as even her advocates outside her immediate campaign apparat fear could happen if the Clinton campaign continues to pursue a harshly negative course.
• Just bumpy and scary enough to shake the Obama campaign one last time and get her into the hangar as the vice presidential nominee on the Democratic ticket. Increasingly, this is what people in Obama's corner and those who know her well are becoming convinced she will try to do. Part of this assumption is based on her determination to roll up the biggest numbers possible in West Virginia and Kentucky, and Bill Clinton's argument that she may still win a majority of popular votes in non-caucus states.
Meanwhile, some of the Clintons' longtime friends and political counselors are intent on trying to talk her down calmly -- something almost like a family intervention -- to get her to concede the Democratic presidential race when the appropriate time comes, in such a way as to heal some of the wounds to the party and to both candidates but allow her to make her best case for the vice presidency.
Almost no one I have spoken to who knows her well doubts that, as she reconciles to the likelihood that her presidential campaign will fall short, she will probably seek the vice presidential spot. One reason: Contrary to common belief, she doesn't look forward to going back to the Senate, they say. Many Democratic senators believe that she would not have an easy time winning an election for majority leader; the tenor and tactics of her presidential campaign have alienated some of her Democratic colleagues in the Senate.
Far more than as one of 100 senators, she could accomplish much of her lifelong social and political agenda as vice president and, if Obama is not elected, could make a better argument that she should be the party's next nominee for president.
One other factor now plays a bigger role in the vice presidential question than on the night of her defeat in North Carolina and her narrow win in the Indiana primary: her unequivocal assertion the following day that she has more support among white working-class voters than Obama has.
In an interview with USA Today, she cited an Associated Press report that, she said, "found how Sen. Obama's support among working, hard-working Americans, white Americans, is weakening again, and how whites in both states who had not completed college were supporting me."
It is difficult to overstate the negative effect this remark has had on superdelegates, party leaders and her Democratic colleagues in both houses of Congress. "That's not a way to land the plane," one of her key supporters said. "If you were a superdelegate, you'd say, 'We have to shut this down right away.' "
But others worried that her words were calculated, that by venturing into such risky, rhetorical territory about race, she might put Obama under increased pressure to take her on the ticket before more damage and loss of support from her working-class base is felt.
Former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown, an old Clinton friend, said Friday that she had made a major mistake in suggesting "that hardworking Americans are white people."
"This statement has got to be dealt with by Hillary Clinton, and Hillary Clinton alone," he said on MSNBC's "Hardball."
"The sooner she does that," he said, "the sooner her ship is going to start sailing in a better direction."