Tentatively, unhappily, but soberly and seriously, the Edwards old guard began discussing their obligation to the party to come forward with what they knew. When should they leak the truth to the Washington Post or the New York Times? Which of them would make the call?
The Iowa results, of course, rendered such considerations moot. For Edwards, winning the caucuses had always been the sine qua non of survival. Informed the night of the contest that he would finish a distant second, with Hillary a far-off third, Edwards put on the bravest face he could but thought, Well, we’re fucked.
Yet Edwards had no intention of going quietly into any good night. He had a contingency plan. Two months earlier, he had asked Leo Hindery, a New York media investor who was one of his closest confidants, to convey an audacious proposal to Tom Daschle, the former Senate majority leader and a mentor to Obama: If Edwards won the caucuses, Obama would immediately drop out of the race and become his running mate; if Obama won, Edwards would do the converse. Wounding though a loss in Iowa would be to Hillary, she might be strong enough to bounce back. The only way to guarantee her elimination would be to take the extraordinary step of uniting against her.
Hindery had presented the proposal to Daschle, with whom he’d long been friends. Daschle brought it to the Obama campaign. The talks were tentative; nothing had been decided.
Now, with the results of Iowa in, Edwards determined it was time to make the deal. A little while before taking the stage to deliver his concession speech, he summoned Hindery to his hotel suite and issued a directive: “Get ahold of Tom.”
Hindery considered the timing miserable. Obama just frickin’ won Iowa, he thought. Give him a chance to savor it. But Edwards wanted to set the wheels in motion—immediately.
Hindery left the Edwards suite and tried frantically to locate Daschle, but discovered that he wasn’t in Iowa. Calls were placed. Messages were left. No one knew where he was.
As Edwards delivered his speech, Hindery stood to his right, until an aide alerted him that Daschle was on the phone. Hindery stepped offstage and took the call, straining to hear Daschle over the noise of the crowd. “Tom? I’ve got John right here,” Hindery said. “You aren’t going to believe this, but he’s willing to cut a deal right now. He’ll agree to be Barack’s V.P.”
“Are you sure you want to do this now?” a dumbfounded Daschle asked.
“I’m not, but he is,” Hindery replied.
All right, Daschle said. I’ll take it to Barack.
But with the victory in Iowa now gusting at his back, Obama rejected the entreaty out of hand. Convinced along with his advisers that he was all but certain to win the New Hampshire primary five days later, he was poised to plunge the dagger into Hillary all by himself.
Clinton’s astonishing comeback in New Hampshire put an end to Obama’s hopes of a quick finish to the nomination contest—and led Edwards to believe that there was still an opening to strike a bargain. On the eve of the South Carolina primary two weeks later, he again dispatched Hindery to make a revised offer, this time a trade for Edwards’s endorsement.
“John will settle for attorney general,” Hindery e-mailed Daschle.
Daschle shook his head. How desperate is this guy?
“Leo, this isn’t good for John,” Daschle replied. “This is ridiculous. It’s going to be ambassador to Zimbabwe next.”
When Obama heard about the suggested quid pro quo, he was incredulous. That’s crazy, he told Axelrod. If I were willing to make a deal like that, I shouldn’t be president!
South Carolina brought an end to the Edwards campaign; after finishing a derisory third in the primary, he dropped out of the race a few days later. Yet for months that spring, as Obama and Clinton engaged in their epic tussle, Edwards continued in his Monty Hall mode, attempting to try to claim some reward from either candidate for his backing.
The trouble with Obama, from Edwards’s point of view, was his refusal to get transactional. When Edwards told Obama that he wanted him to make poverty a centerpiece of his agenda, Obama airily replied, Yeah, yeah, yeah, I care about all that stuff. Clinton, by contrast, proposed that she and Edwards do a poverty tour together, even suggested that Edwards would have “a role” in her administration. Edwards still had his eye on becoming attorney general, and thought the odds of getting that plum were better with Hillary than with Obama. But after South Carolina, the chances of Clinton claiming the nomination just kept falling—and Edwards didn’t want to back a loser.