Friday, May 23, 2008

You can't go home again to the White House

A major-party Presidential nominee who aims to change the trajectory of American politics suddenly becomes enamored of inviting a former White House occupant -- once the candidate's bitter rival for the nomination -- to take the second slot on a dream ticket. The 'dream' is to rapturously unify a divided party -- quelling doubts about a candidate who represents a leap of faith that many of the party faithful may be unwilling to make.

A powerful former high-ranking public servant lurks behind the prospective veep, reportedly demanding almost co-presidential powers on his liege's behalf -- and a strong role for himself. Ultimately the dream evaporates, as the nominee demurs at proposals to cede vast swaths of the President's Constitutional authority to a vice president who will function as "chief operating officer."

This happened in 1980. On the eve of the Republican convention, presumptive nominee Ronald Reagan reached out to offer former President (and former Vice President) Gerald Ford the second spot on the ticket. Three or four top aides on each side met to hash out the details, with Henry Kissinger chief among those in the Ford camp. According to Howell Raine's report in the New York Times (July 18, 1980):
The so-called "dream ticket" fell apart because to have endowed the Vice Presidency with enough power to make the offer attractive to Mr. Ford would have eroded Mr. Reagan's authority as President, one Regan aide said. Mr. Reagan said Mr. Ford also had a persistent and finally insurmountable visceral feeling that it would be wrong for the two to run together.
As reported by the Times, the principals were oddly passive in the negotiating process. The Ford camp, led by Kissinger, "astonished Mr. Reagan's aides in the degree to which they would have watered down Mr. Reagan's powers to run the Government." The proposals included giving Ford veto power over major cabinet appointments and the right to make other appointments. They also seem to have included making Kissinger Secretary of State.

Gerald Ford was no Hillary Clinton. The deal failed as much because of his recognition that what his aides were asking was preposterous as because of Reagan's similar recognition.

Imagine the Obama camp negotiating with the Clintonites. While the Clinton team would be in no position to ask for overt prerogatives of the magnitude demanded by the Ford team for the former President, the principal's will to power would be unchecked.

Obama is no fool. Like Reagan and Ford, he will feel in his gut that a prospective President can't share power with a former White House occupant. This year's 'dream ticket,' like that of 1980, will fade like morning dew.

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