Obama's Unconventional Error

Just tell me, my friend Kath wants to know, what would have happened if their roles were reversed. If Hillary had won the nomination and Obama had come in a close second, would he have gotten a prime-time speech one night, and Michelle another?

Would his name have been placed in nomination right after Michelle’s speech, followed by a roll call vote that will be on Wisconsin before the inevitable winner goes over the top?

Would Oprah’s production company be doing his video introduction, without any input from the Clinton crowd that would be controlling every second of the convention?

Let me give you the short answer: No. Let me give you the longer version: No way. No chance.

But let me also tell you what Obama would have gotten, had their roles been reversed. Not three convention speeches (Bill, Hill, and Chelsea ... and what about Mrs. Rodham? Nothing for Mom?). Not his own video. Not his name in nomination and a roll call vote. Michelle would have been given the honor of introducing Barack. Barack would have had a choice: between introducing Bill or nominating Hillary. Then he would have moved to nomination by acclamation.

He also would have gotten one other thing: Twenty million dolllars. Or whatever it took to put him out of debt. A small price to pay to control your convention. A lot less than what Obama will be losing by ceding half the convention to the Clintons, turning it into an opportunity for her supporters to publicly bemoan her loss (and his victory) and Clinton haters to tar the whole party with one brush.

Dick Morris suggests that Barack Obama had no leverage in this game of chicken with the Clintons. On that point, I totally disagree. He had the same leverage that winners almost always have when dealing with losers: Money.

Hillary came out of the primary season with a bigger debt than any losing candidate in recent history. The Clintons owed a slew of small vendors, they owed the much-reviled Mark Penn, and they owed themselves. Having left office basically broke, Bill Clinton has given a whole lot of speeches to earn the kind of money that the Clintons lent to their campaign.

Barack Obama could have had any convention he wanted if he had stepped up to that debt. Hillary’s supporters might not have been happy, but they couldn’t place her name in nomination without her consent. Chelsea could have introduced Bill, Bill could have introduced Hillary, and Hillary could have done her thing. On Monday, say. Before Oprah.

If their roles had been reversed, the Clintons would have done what they had to do to “earn” Obama’s enthusiastic support. Terry McAuliffe would have been dispatched straight away with instructions to cut the deal: to pay the debt in exchange for putting the party together behind Hillary.

Deal. Expensive? Sure. But not nearly as expensive as ceding half the convention, and inviting every commentator worth his or her salt to suggest that if Obama wasn’t tough enough to take on the Clintons, how was he going to do with a real bad guy like Mr. Putin?

Hillary’s supporters, of course, are trying to put a positive face on her first victory since June. Said Rep. Anthony Weiner: "It gives honor to her and her supporters, and it gets us all on the same page supporting Barack. I think it's the perfect outcome and it's something Obama wanted as much as Hillary did."

“Something Obama wanted as much as Hillary did”? I want whatever he’s smoking. Just last week, Obama himself said on his campaign plane that what he was looking for at the convention was not “catharsis,” but energy and enthusiasm. He meant for him, not Hillary.

Obama can afford to give a bad speech, because everyone knows he can give a good speech. He can afford to look like a dork and be entirely uncool, because -- at least compared to McCain -- he is the epitome of cool. He can afford to be old-fashioned because he isn’t.

The one thing he can’t afford to be, or to be perceived as, is weak. He can’t afford even the whiff of naive. He can’t afford to get rolled. His initial statement in response to Russia’s invasion of Georgia was way too even-handed, and the conservative bloggers had a field day calling it a “Rodney King moment.” Remember: “can’t we all just get along?” Not with Mr. Putin we can’t, certainly not by pretending he’s a nice guy who plays by the rules.

Having started the week inviting comparisons to Rodney King, Obama ended it by giving his critics an opportunity to suggest that if he’s not tough enough to stand up to the Clintons, imagine him at the table with a real bad guy like Putin. Ouch.

And all of it (or at least all of the Clinton part) could have been avoided by the magnanimous gesture of taking over her debt. In retrospect, it would have been a cheap deal. For the life of me, I can’t understand why he didn’t make it.

Susan Estrich is the Robert Kingsley Professor of Law and Political Science at the University of Southern California. She was Professor of Law at Harvard Law School and the first female president of the Harvard Law Review. She is a columnist for Creators Syndicate and has written for USA Today and the Los Angeles Times.

Estrich's books include the just published "Soulless," "The Case for Hillary Clinton," "How to Get Into Law School," "Sex & Power," "Real Rape," "Getting Away with Murder: How Politics Is Destroying the Criminal Justice System" and "Making the Case for Yourself: A Diet Book for Smart Women."

She served as campaign manager for Michael Dukakis' presidential bid, becoming the first woman to head a U.S. presidential campaign. Estrich appears regularly on the FOX News Channel, in addition to writing the "Blue Streak" column for FOXNews.com.