NEAL CONAN, HOST:
While most people continue to watch Republicans duke it out, the Obama campaign is readying for a long and hard fight with the eventual nominee, whoever that may be. For years now, since before President Obama won the presidency, Washington watchers floated the idea of a Vice President Hillary Clinton. They envisioned scenarios that would allow the president to dump Vice President Joe Biden in favor of the popular secretary of state. New York Times columnist Bill Keller says it's time to do - it's just the thing to do to guarantee President Obama's re-election.
So what do you think of the Obama-Clinton super-ticket? Is it plausible; could it happen - 800-989-8255. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Bill Keller joins us now from a studio at the New York Times. His column "Just the Ticket" ran on Monday. Nice to have you back on the program.
BILL KELLER: Thanks, Neal. Nice to be here.
CONAN: And Barack Obama - said to be a very loyal man. How could this happen?
KELLER: Well, I don't know that it could happen. You know, what I was trying to make the case for is that - that I think it should happen. And as you say, the idea has been kicking around for, I mean, well over a year. And the idea surfaced a bit back in 2008, whether she should be on the ticket. So it's not even, you know, new this cycle.
I just figured that the time was right to kind of lump all the arguments together, and parse them. And I think, you know, it's a long shot, partly because, as you say, Obama is a loyal guy; partly because there has, you know, the relationship between the Obamas and the Clintons has always had some - friction would be putting it politely. And if...
CONAN: Doing it the week of South Carolina would be ironic.
KELLER: Yes, it would. You know, also, I think at this point, the White House, frankly, doesn't think that they need that kind of a move to reinforce their campaign. I imagine that - I mean, you know, in a week, when you have the Republicans taking a break from accusing Obama of being a socialist to attack Mitt Romney for being a capitalist...
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
KELLER: ...you know, that's got to, you know, cause a certain amount of smiling around the Oval Office.
CONAN: They've also seen some better employment numbers - nothing to throw hats in the air over, but maybe the grimness is alleviating just a little bit. Nevertheless, what is the best argument, you think, for the Obama-Clinton ticket?
KELLER: Well, I'll give you three. One of them is, I think it's the single best thing the Democrats can do to assure Obama's re-election. I realize that Hillary's 64 percent - or whatever they are - approval ratings would not hold up in a campaign; that's unrealistic. But they are high. She is, you know, by some counts, the most admired woman in America, certainly the most admired member of the current administration. She brings a lot to the party. She would, you know, electrify a lot of voters - turn some off, of course.
The Clintons come with baggage. But she would, I think, excite a lot of women, but not just a lot of women. So that's point number one. Point number two is, you know, maybe they do and maybe they don't need to do something like this to assure Obama's re-election, but there's a case to be made for running up the numbers, running up the score, which I think she would do. So there would be - it's an opportunity for the president to claim not just a victory, but a mandate, and maybe to carry some House and Senate seats with him. And then the third would be, that it would anoint her as the heir apparent in 2016, to run for president herself.
Assuming she has the wish and the energy to do it, she would, you know, if she ran in 2016 on her - and won, on her Inauguration Day, she would be 69 years old, the same age that Reagan was when he was inaugurated to his first term. And people - some people, anyway - seemed to think that at least the first term of Reagan was OK, you know. And if she - she pretty clearly is not going to stay on for a second term as secretary of State. So if she spends those four years sort of out of the limelight, running an NGO or something like that, other Democrats are going to come in, I think, and start campaigning. Andrew Cuomo comes to mind, and I'm sure you guys could think of others.
CONAN: Ken certainly can. But Ken, I wonder if you had some question for Bill Keller.
KEN RUDIN, BYLINE: Yikes, where do I start? I love the New York Times.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
RUDIN: I can't live without the New York Times, and I sound like - I must sound like one of these anti-media folks here. But to me, this is a ridiculous scenario for so many reasons. You think of Spiro Agnew and Dan Quayle, vice presidents who very well may have - should have been dumped and weren't dumped. And ultimately, they didn't matter - keeping them on the ticket or not. It's really about the top of the ticket. For all the excitement about Geraldine Ferraro that, you know, Mondale still lost 49 out of 50 states. So I don't know what changing the vice president does so much.
But here's another thing about the scenario here. If Obama-Clinton ticket losses in 2012, why would Hillary Clinton be the front-runner for 2016? Because, you know, you have the Andrew Cuomos and all the Democrats waiting in the wings. And if they won, do you think, after eight years of Obama presidency, the voters are going to go for a Democrat again in 2016 - for a third term in a row? It just seems so preposterous.
KELLER: Well, I think whether they're going to go for a Democrat in 2016 depends, to a large extent, on what happens between January 2013 and the next election. I mean, that's, you know, Hillary Clinton is not Geraldine Ferraro, and she certainly is not Spiro Agnew. What she brings to the ticket is a lot of credibility. I mean, she won the popular vote over Obama in 2008, so she comes with a track record and a lot of pent-up support. I can assure you from my email in-basket over the last few days that while there are still - you know, the Clintons, as I said, carry a lot of baggage - there is an enormous repository of admiration for her, and a sense that it's not just a symbolic move, or a token event, to have her as a woman on the ticket. It's, you know, she's somebody who has actually earned it.
CONAN: Here's an email from Julia Benjamin: Please, just do it - I think you're talking about getting a lot of those.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
CONAN: Let's get a caller in. This is Rich, and Rich is with us from Placerville in California.
RICH: Hi, there.
CONAN: Go ahead, Rich.
RICH: I'm a former Democrat county chair in California when Obama was elected. I think this is a dumb idea. We already have trouble enough keeping the progressives in line, in this party. And those of us who supported Obama as an alternative to Clinton, many of those folks are going to abandon us. And that, to me, would be a stupid thing to do. So thank you.
CONAN: All right. Thanks very much. Bill Keller, what Rich is suggesting, of course, you - we think of Clinton baggage, vitriolic hatred on the right. There are some - many on the left who are not happy with her, either.
KELLER: I've heard that argument and, you know, it is true that if you draw the left to right scale, you know, Biden is further to the left on many issues than Hillary Clinton is. But, you know, I find it very hard to believe that Democrats are going to abandon the Obama ticket and vote for Mitt Romney or an alternative to Mitt Romney - even less likely. I think the excitement that Hillary would bring to the ticket would more than compensate for the defections of, you know, of people who think that she is too much of a centrist. You know, I just - you know, I just think this would be a smart thing, that it would be net plus.
And by the way, elections - I think will Ken agree with this - elections, presidential elections tend to be decided by the moderate independents, the people who identify as independents and of the independents, the ones who identify as moderates. That is a constituency that Hillary Clinton owns.
RUDIN: No - I agree with that completely. And I also think that ultimately, this will be about the state of the economy. If the economy is getting better, if more jobs are being created, then Obama can run against his improving record and compare it to the Republicans. But if the economy is bad then, you know, you could put Neal Conan on the ticket, and I don't think it would help.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
CONAN: Well, I don't think that would help anyway. But maybe somebody could find out that Hillary Clinton's - ask questions about her birth certificate, and find out that she was born in Scranton.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
CONAN: Here's an email from Tanya: Obama is emotionally flat. The Obama-Biden ticket is without much life or enthusiasm. If he were to select Hillary Clinton to be his VP, he would energize the Democratic Party base overnight. This question should be polled. But I believe putting her on the ticket would make a difference with independents, too, and it would almost likely ensure policy continuity where warranted, and guarantee Clinton another shot at becoming president in 2016. It'd make a big difference for me. I would enthusiastically work for the ticket with Hillary on it. Otherwise, I will still vote for Obama-Biden, but nothing more.
So there, a vote for some enthusiasm and Hillary Clinton...
KELLER: I hope the president is listening to the program.
CONAN: I hope so, too. But Hillary Clinton - we always need more listeners in Washington - but Hillary Clinton is an exceptional campaigner.
KELLER: She is. She is a very good - and she has gotten better, actually. You know, in her early days as a campaigner, I think she had a reputation for being a little preachy, you know? And she's learned how to listen - or at least how to do a very good impression of a politician listening. And, you know, and she's - I watched her a bit in 2008, and I've watched her - admittedly, the role of secretary of State is not the same as being - campaigning for public office, but I'd watch her...
CONAN: But she seems a lot more comfortable, yeah. She seems a lot more comfortable.
KELLER: She seems more comfortable in her own skin. There's a kind of warmth, and a sort of accessibility that she has grown into. She's a very appealing candidate.
RUDIN: You know...
CONAN: Bill Keller of The New York Times. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Ken, I'm sorry I cut you off.
RUDIN: I apologize for that. You know what's interesting about this is that for the longest time, the Republicans have been saying only nice things about Hillary Clinton. Now, I don't know if...
CONAN: That would come to a stop.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
RUDIN: No, exactly. I don't know if it's to tweak the Democrats, or tweak President Obama, but they seem to - all the bad things they said about her when she was in the Senate, running for president; now, as secretary of State, they've been saying wonderful things. Let's see how long it lasts when she gets on the ticket.
CONAN: Robin is on the line, calling from Fort Mill in South Carolina.
ROBIN: Yes. I - this - Hillary Clinton on the ticket would seal my vote. Since we've had - I have been a registered Democrat my whole life, but I have been following the Republican debates religiously because I've been very disappointed in some of the weaknesses I've seen of Obama. But there are tons and tons - even in the South - of Hillary fans who have been grieving since Obama won the nomination, who would be out in force. And I think it would seal the deal.
CONAN: Robin, thanks very much for the call. Here's an...
KELLER: This is the only time I've been on your show, when everybody who's calling in agrees with me.
CONAN: Well, that's why...
KELLER: It's a refreshing change.
RUDIN: We still have Ken Rudin.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
KELLER: I know. I know. I know.
CONAN: Here's an email...
KELLER: But Ken's coming around.
CONAN: Well, here's an email from Stephanie, and this says: It seems like Joe Biden is doing a great job. Hillary Clinton is pretty tired after doing a great job as secretary of State. Why would they swap jobs?
KELLER: Yeah. Well, that's a very good question. And one thing you hear a lot from people close to Hillary - including her husband, who has said this publicly - is that she's exhausted. I mean, she has spent - she's been a road warrior for three years in some very tough places. She's living on an airplane, dealing with very tough issues. And I'm sure she is exhausted. You know, the proposal that I put in the column - and, you know, somebody else can reinvent this, but - would be that she steps down as secretary of State soon-ish - you know, early spring, late winter, early spring - and actually does take a break, rejuvenate. She can, you know, make a few million dollars by writing the next volume of her memoirs. And then, you know, come the convention in the fall, she comes back, rested - tanned, rested and ready.
CONAN: Tanned, rested and ready, yeah.
KELLER: And meantime, you know, Joe Biden was chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He's not a slouch on international policy. In fact, from the point of view of those disaffected liberals who were referenced earlier, you know, Biden is probably more popular - would maybe be a more popular secretary of state. So, you know, give him the State portfolio. I think that would be a perfectly honorable way for a Joe Biden to end a long and accomplished and distinguished career. It wouldn't be, you know, throwing him under the bus in some sort of a disloyal way.
CONAN: Let's get Linda on the line. Linda is calling us from Stockton, California.
LINDA: I have to say this - I'm going to quote, ridiculous scenario. And I think it's very unwise - some might say disloyal - but very unwise for Democrats, pro-Obama people, to even discuss this. It's making Republicans, and the right wing, chuckle and laugh. It's going to make President Obama, if he did this, look weak. It's going to make them look desperate.
And I'm hoping Elizabeth Warren will be our candidate in 2016. And that's all I'm going to say, but I was an independent for many, many, many years; was a Democrat during college. Then I was an independent all the time I was raising children. And I came back to the Democratic Party and left my independent registration. And in California, you really need to have a party, you know, because of our primary system.
CONAN: Well, not so much anymore.
LINDA: Yeah. But I mean, for many years, I wasn't able to vote in the primary.
CONAN: Yeah. Well, I get...
LINDA: Obama livened me, and many people - and I worked very hard in that campaign; I called many states. And I'm going to work even harder in this one. I do not want Hillary Clinton, who - I will never forget the view of the pilgrimage that President Obama had to make to her home after the election.
LINDA: I will never forget that. That, to me, spoke volumes...
CONAN: All right. Linda, thanks very much. She - Elizabeth Warren would, of course, have to win election first to the Senate in Massachusetts. And of course, Ken, it's completely absurd to think that a first-term U.S. senator from - would get the nomination and run for president, but...
RUDIN: Right - as Barack Obama would tell you, right.
CONAN: Absolutely ridiculous. Bill Keller, thank you so much for your time today. We appreciate it. We're glad we could find some people to utterly trash you before you got off the air.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
KELLER: It's a pleasure. Thanks for having me.
CONAN: Bill Keller, the former editor at the New York Times, and now the columnist at the newspaper. "Just the Ticket," he wrote in Sunday's edition of the New York Times. You could find a link to that column at npr.org; just click on TALK OF THE NATION. Ken Rudin will be back with us next Wednesday from - here in Washington, D.C. Ken, thanks very much for your time today.
RUDIN: I say we dump Henry Wallace in 1944.
CONAN: Tomorrow: the abortion debate. Abortion-rights opponents have made some strategic changes in the last few years abortion-right supporters have yet to find a way to respond to. Join us for that. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.