Sen. Barack Obama should consider his defeated rival for the Democratic party presidential nomination, Sen. Hillary Clinton, as his running mate in November, political analyst David Gergen told a Vineyard audience on Wednesday.
Without tough political fighters like Senator Clinton working with him, Mr. Gergen said, Senator Obama risks being overwhelmed by the same Republican attack machine which had so effectively “Swift-boated” John Kerry’s bid.
Mr. Gergen, who has served as a political advisor to four presidents — Nixon, Ford, Reagan and Clinton — told an overflow audience of more than 300 people at the Martha’s Vineyard Hebrew Center he had reversed his earlier opposition to the idea after watching the Presidential race tighten up over the past few weeks.
“I was very strongly against the idea for a long time that an Obama-Clinton ticket made sense. I took the view that if he was 10 points ahead [of Republican candidate John McCain] going into August, he didn’t need to consider it,” he said.
“But given the uncertainties and closeness of it, I personally have come to the view that if he wants to win this election he has got to give serious reconsideration to the idea of inviting Hillary Clinton to go on the ticket.”
Mr. Gergen cited a range of reasons why the presidential contest would be far closer than might otherwise be the case, given the many factors working against the Republicans.
He noted that a range of factors — including the unpopular war, the lowest economic growth in almost 50 years, lowest jobs growth in more than 60 years, increasing poverty and declining income of average Americans, high energy prices and a decline in American standing in the world — would normally predict a Democratic landslide in November.
And indeed there would likely be major Democratic gains in the “down-ticket” contest for the House and Senate. He suggested the party would pick up 10 to 20 seats in the House and five to seven in the Senate.
Yet despite George Bush’s record unpopularity — his ratings are consistently lower than even Richard Nixon’s — Senator McCain remains a strong prospect to succeed him for a number of reasons.
“One of them is that John McCain actually does stir the sentiments and has earned the respect of a much bigger swath of people than you might have imagined here in Massachusetts,” he said.
And not only do many Americans legitimately admire his valor in war, his values resonate with a lot of them.
“This is, by and large, a very conservative country,” Mr. Gergen reminded his audience. America is an “outlier nation” among developed countries: more individualistic, more strongly in favor of small government, more entrepreneurial. Unlike almost every other advanced nation, it offers, for example, no national health care and no good support system for young mothers.
Most Americans, he said, see themselves as just to the right of center, and see McCain as somewhat to the right of them, but Obama “well to the left.”
So even if Senator Obama were a more conventional candidate, it would still be a close election.
And Senator Obama is anything but a conventional candidate.
“He’s a phenom, he is a rock star,” Mr. Gergen said.
But he is also far smarter than many people realize, Mr. Gergen said. He noted that Laurence Tribe, the legendary Harvard constitutional law professor called Barack Obama the smartest student he ever had. Professor Tribe also taught the current chief justice of the Supreme Court, John Roberts.
Senator Obama is a “deep listener” and a “great synthesizing mind,” who does not talk down to the American people, Mr. Gergen said.
As evidence of his precocious political abilities as well as his mass appeal, Mr. Gergen pointed to the recent tour to Europe and the Middle East. The choreography of that trip, particularly through the minefield of Middle East politics was “diva-like,” he said.
Yet he got little lift in the polls from the trip, and events since then have shown him to be more vulnerable than Mr. Gergen previously thought.
Not only is Obama bouncing around in recent polls, he said, but there is reason to suspect the polls overstated support for the first black presidential candidate.
A senior Republican strategist told Mr. Gergen he believed race would make a four to six point difference in the election outcome. A respected pollster told him as many as 10 per cent of people are lying in the poll responses.
The Republican attack machine — with or without Senator McCain’s support — will continue to try to construct a negative narrative about Senator Obama, building it around race, but without having to explicitly mention race, he said.
The narrative goes something like this: a man who went to elite schools, whose success had gone to his head, who had become “a big arugula lover” with lots of money and a wife who is in your face.
“These are the same people who turned John Kerry from a war hero into a guy who threw away his medals, who couldn’t be trusted.
“And to some extent it’s working,” he said.
He summarized an alternative narrative, pushed by the Democrats, of a young man born into a broken family, whose father deserted him before he was two years old, who was raised by a valiant single mother but who had struggled upwards with enormous talent, grit and determination and having reached the pinnacle of his education, as the first African American editor of the Harvard Law Review, could have gone off to make “a zillion dollars” but instead had gone out to work as a community organizer.
“That’s a story you can put right up there against the [McCain] POW story,” Mr. Gergen said.
It is important that the Democratic party be united, that Senator Obama not have to bear the burden of defending himself alone.
“I think it’s asking too much of him to ask him to be the one who answers all the darned charges. I think he needs a fighter by his side. And if there’s anything we know, it’s that Hillary Clinton is a fighter,” Mr. Gergen said.
He noted that political need had made equally strange bedfellows before.
John F. Kennedy did not really like his running mate, Lyndon Johnson, and Robert Kennedy ”detested” him, but Johnson was the decisive factor in Kennedy’s election.
Likewise, Ronald Reagan did not want George H.W. Bush on the ticket with him, but it helped unite the Republican party behind him.
The next president, whoever it is, will face the toughest set of problems of any in modern times, Mr. Gergen said.
It will require a leader with what he called inner steel.
On that score, he said John McCain has a perceived advantage.
Equally, the next leader will have to put together new coalitions, both at home and abroad, to get Washington working again, to give people a voice again and diminish the influence of special interests.
And that, he said, was where Sen. Obama has a distinct edge.