The Deal: Hillary and Obama's "Granita Pact"?

In 1994, the British Labour Party, having lost election after election, was looking for a new leader. It was also trying to avoid the sort of prolonged strife that is now driving Democrats crazy.
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The Democrats must be kicking themselves. They're facing a Republican opponent in November who seems beatable, yet they can't settle on their own contender. Their convention isn't until August 25, so four more months of uncertainty could be on the way. Is there any way to cut the process short?

Internal strategy has rarely been the Democrats' strong suit. The Republicans, on the other hand, have benefited from a couple of prodigious political minds. In 2000, Karl Rove ran an exemplary campaign, obscuring his boss's weaknesses behind a good-guy façade that appealed to the American voter. In 2004, Ken Mehlman made sure that the Republicans could play dirty without leaving too many fingerprints, while the Democrats tried vainly to counterpunch.

I get the feeling that, if either of those guys had been running strategy in the Democratic party, they and their powerful backers would have tapped Hillary Clinton on the shoulder a couple of months ago and forced her to drop out of the race. That hasn't happened, though, in part because the most gifted Democratic strategist -- and arguably the party's most powerful politician -- is Hillary's husband, Bill.

So, the Democrats have been slugging it out in a 19-month battle for the nomination, while a rested Republican awaits a three-month general election campaign. The shots they've been taking at each other haven't actually done too much damage. What truly has damaged the candidates has been their own fatigue, coupled with impatience. Barack Obama's comments in Pennsylvania gave ample testament to the problem.

Is there a solution? I think there is. To see it, you have to cast your mind back to another kind of internal party race, about a dozen years ago, that also involved two influential and evenly-matched politicians. The party was Britain's Labour Party, and the politicians were Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.

The circumstances of that contest are now the stuff of legend, or possibly of myth. In 1994, the Labour Party, having lost election after election -- even against the uninspiring figure of John Major -- was looking for a new leader. It was also trying to avoid the sort of prolonged strife that is now driving Democrats crazy.

As the story goes, the two top candidates to lead the party into the 1997 elections met at a London restaurant called Granita. There, they supposedly agreed that Blair would lead the party, and, if victorious, would give Brown a prominent post in the new government. In addition, Blair would hand the reins to Brown after serving a respectable period of time as prime minister. (That's the way things work in the United Kingdom; if one prime minister resigns, his party chooses another one without having to call an election.)

Could Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama make a deal as well? She has already offered him the vice presidential spot on a joint ticket, though that offer came at a time when her own momentum suggested she should be the number two. A more logical argument might be that the Democrats need to make the most of their human resources. Clinton is 60, and Obama is 46. If both are to serve -- and a significant chunk of the party would be happy with either of them -- then she is the logical choice to go first.

But for how long? Blair won three elections with the Labour Party, and probably stayed in office far longer than Brown expected. Indeed, Brown's faction had been grumbling restlessly for years by the time Blair stepped down last June. Obama probably wouldn't want play second fiddle for eight years, either. The only way to resolve this impasse might be for Clinton to agree that if she won, she would serve just one term. She could always come back later, of course. She would be 68 in 2016; John McCain is 71.

The big question, of course, is how such a deal could be enforced. How could Obama be sure that Clinton, if she won in 2008, wouldn't run again in 2012? As any economist can tell you, she would have to use a commitment mechanism -- something that would attach a cost to non-compliance. For some politicians, making a public declaration is enough. John Edwards declared that he would serve just one term as senator for North Carolina, and that's exactly what he did. Had he reneged, his opponent in the second election would have been able to call him untrustworthy.

My guess, though, is that the Obama camp would want a stronger guarantee, in addition to a slate of high slots in Clinton's administration. Perhaps, alongside a public declaration, the two candidates could sign a legally-binding document together. The signing ceremony itself would be a display of unity for the party.

If a joint ticket were to lose, of course, all bets would be off. But the Democrats haven't backed a loser for a second bid since Adlai Stevenson in 1956. In 2012, Obama would have the upper hand.

Could an American version of the "Granita Pact" happen? With so much bad blood already being generated between the candidates, it looks like a longshot. But would they rather weaken their own party with a messy, or even a hung convention?

Daniel Altman is the author of Neoconomy: George W. Bush's Revolutionary Gamble With America's Future and Connected: 24 Hours in the Global Economy. He also served as an economic advisor to the British government in 2003 and 2004.

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