For all the excitement he has generated, Barack Obama—should he maintain his delegate lead over Hillary Clinton—will be the Democratic Party's weakest standard-bearer since primaries became the necessary route to securing the presidential nomination. No candidate has ever concluded these preliminary contests with so many rank-and-file Democrats against him. Obama badly needs to win over Clinton supporters, some of whom deeply resent the demonization of her as hysterical, ruthless, and racist and are talking of bolting or staying home in November.
The easiest way for Obama to unify the party would be to make Clinton his running mate. Indeed, the idea of a "dream ticket" or "unity ticket" has been in the air for months. CNN's Wolf Blitzer proposed it, to deafening applause, in January. In March, Mario Cuomo pushed the idea in the Boston Globe.
But do unity tickets happen? And do they work? Primaries have had a major influence on nominations since only 1952, and in that period the top two rivals have reconciled on a dream ticket just twice, when John F. Kennedy chose Lyndon Johnson as his running mate in 1960 and when Ronald Reagan brought George Bush onboard in 1980. That rarity doesn't bode well for the creation of an Obama-Clinton ticket. It does, however, augur well for victory for an Obama-Clinton ticket. For both the Kennedy-Johnson and Reagan-Bush fusions offer models of how a divided party can turn debilitating rifts into assets.
The Kennedy-Johnson ticket represented the triumph of cold pragmatism over chilly personal feelings. In 1960, Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson wielded more power than anyone in Washington other than President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Early on, he had regarded his younger colleague with admiration. But as JFK emerged as a front-runner for 1960, Johnson's view of his Senate colleague soured. He made it no secret that he thought Kennedy too young, too ambitious, and too unaccomplished for the presidency.
Kennedy reciprocated in kind. To gain credibility, JFK chose to compete in the 1960 primaries, while Johnson counted on a deadlocked convention that would let him call in favors amassed from his years of Senate deal-making—still a plausible nomination strategy in those days. Led by Bobby Kennedy, JFK's camp taunted LBJ for sitting out the preliminary contests.
As the July 11 convention neared, things got uglier. Johnson tried to orchestrate a "stop Kennedy" movement, hoping that those delegates loyal to him and those supporting Adlai Stevenson could together deny Kennedy a majority on the first ballot and create an opening. Johnson and his surrogates cast doubt on JFK's electability, on his capacity for hard work, and, most controversially, on his claims to be in good health. On July 4, Johnson ally India Edwards publicly stated (correctly) that Kennedy had Addison's disease, a severe kidney ailment. Bobby Kennedy denied the charge, the New York Times denounced it as dirty campaigning, and the ploy backfired. Meanwhile, Ted Kennedy and others whispered that LBJ hadn't recovered from his 1955 heart attack.
Johnson formally announced his candidacy the next day. The mudslinging continued. Bobby accused LBJ of relying on the Teamsters union to muscle his way to the nomination, while Johnson brought up Joseph Kennedy's support for the appeasement of Hitler. More promisingly, LBJ challenged Kennedy to debate before the Massachusetts and Texas delegations to the convention. Kennedy accepted but never let his claim on the nomination be questioned. As Johnson carped about Kennedy's absenteeism from the Senate and his civil rights record, a self-satisfied JFK positioned himself above the fray. The next night, as the roll was called, and the delegates began stating their preferences, Johnson foresaw the outcome and left the convention floor. By the time Kennedy secured his 806-to-409 lead in the delegate count, a dejected LBJ was in his hotel room, seemingly destined to enjoy only enmity from the Kennedys in the future.
But since his own nomination had been uncertain, Kennedy hadn't chosen a running mate. He didn't think Johnson would want the vice presidency—arguably a demotion—but neither that surmise nor the pre-nomination ill will dashed the possibility. Some Kennedy aides thought LBJ would help the ticket more than any other running mate, given his pull with farmers and Southerners, particularly Texans. A series of twists and turns (laid out in its most comprehensive and comprehensible form in Jeff Shesol's book Mutual Contempt) saw the prospect of the unity ticket rise and fall and rise again. Johnson was nominated the next day, though Kennedy's waffling left considerable bad feeling.