Friday, May 9, 2008

Allan Lichtman: The Democratic dream ticket

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In 2002, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, the Democratic nominee for governor, declined to make a path-breaking choice for lieutenant governor on her ticket by tapping an African-American nominee, such as Montgomery County’s Ike Leggett. Instead of putting together a ticket of a woman and an African American, she embraced conventional politics by choosing to balance her ticket with a white male, Admiral Charles R. Larson, the former superintendent of the U.S. Naval Academy, and a recent convert from the GOP.

Townsend’s choice of Larson (Charlie who?) drained the enthusiasm from her campaign. It cost her crucial support within the Democratic base vote and contributed to her upset defeat by Republican Robert Ehrlich in the general election. Ehrlich stepped into the breach left open by the choice of Larson and became the path-breaking candidate by picking Michael Steele, an African American, as his running mate. African Americans in Maryland have still not forgotten their snub by the Democrats in 2002.

Barack Obama, who has edged very close to becoming the presumptive Democratic nominee, should not make the same mistake of choosing a conventional running mate. Rather, he should complete the Democratic dream ticket by making Hillary Clinton his vice presidential choice. Likewise, if Clinton should pull off an improbable upset and gain the nomination, she should choose Obama as her running mate.

It is unusual but not without precedent for presidential nominees to tap a competing candidate as their choice for vice president. In 1960, Sen. Lyndon Johnson of Texas campaigned vigorously against Sen. John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts for the Democratic nomination for president. The struggle continued to the convention, where Kennedy and Johnson took part in an unprecedented debate. John Kennedy and Johnson didn’t especially like one another and Bobby Kennedy and Johnson detested one another. But John Kennedy still chose Johnson as his running mate to put together the dream North-South ticket of the senator from Massachusetts and the senator from Texas.

In 1980, conservative Ronald Reagan and moderate George H.W. Bush waged a bitter struggle for the Republican presidential nomination and the ideological soul of their party. Still, Reagan picked Bush as his running mate to unite the conservative and moderate wings of the party, even though Bush had derided Reagan’s economic plan as ‘‘voodoo economics” and opposed Reagan on issues such as abortion and the Equal Rights Amendment.

I am not suggesting that the Democrats should put together their dream ticket in order to help the party beat John McCain. Given that the Republican opposition is suffering from an unpopular war, a sour economy and a president with the highest disapproval rating in the history of scientific polling, the Democrats should be able to win with a vice presidential candidate plucked from the phone booth.

I am advocating the Democratic dream ticket because I think it would be good for the party and even better for the nation. Forget the weeping and hand-wringing by the pols and the pundits. So far the intense primary contest has been good for Democrats. Millions of new voters have signed up with the Democratic Party, Democratic primary turnout has hit record levels, and Democrats are enjoying a double-digit lead in party identification over Republicans.

A ticket that includes both Obama and Clinton would help sustain this momentum and likely produce a record Democratic turnout in November. The two candidates also appeal to different segments of the electorate. Obama is strong among African Americans, young voters, and more affluent and educated voters. Clinton appeals to older voters, women and blue-collar voters. Of course, some Clinton backers have said that they would not vote for Obama and vice versa. But those heat-of-the-battle sentiments will surely change once the general election campaign begins.

The Democratic dream ticket would also inspire young people and demonstrate convincingly that no one is excluded from the American dream of opportunity and success. The ticket might even contribute to expanding the representation of women and African Americans in the second highest set of offices in the land: governorships and U.S. Senate seats. At present there is but one African-American senator (Obama) and two governors, including David Paterson of New York, who assumed the office after the resignation of Eliot Spitzer. There are only 16 women senators and eight women governors.

Six years ago, in a small place called Maryland, the Democratic Party failed to present the voters with a ticket that included both a woman and an African American. Democrats can only hope that their party will not make the same mistake on a much larger stage in 2008.

Allan J. Lichtman is a professor of history at American University and a national political analyst. He can be reached at lichtman@american.edu.