Hillary Clinton 2016: The Anti-'08 Campaign

As she inches closer to her expected campaign launch, staffing decisions offer clues into how her operation might work.

DREAMFORCE 2014

Hillary Clinton, former U.S. secretary of state, speaks during the DreamForce Conference in San Francisco, California, U.S., on Tuesday, Oct. 14, 2014.

Photographer: Noah Berger/Bloomberg

This time is going to be different.

So say members of the skeleton team already working for Hillary Clinton, future staffers preparing to make the move from Washington D.C. to the expected campaign headquarters in New York, and some veterans of the 2008 campaign. It’s a reflection of what Clinton and her husband want as well as they prepare to launch her candidacy next month: A clear statement that they have learned from missteps and aren't dwelling on what might have been.

Clinton’s strategy is still being formulated and her total message has yet to be unveiled, but her early staffing choices are seen as a signal that she is aware of the infighting and drama that plagued her 2008 campaign and is trying to change that.

“If she gets in the race, of course this time will be different. And her team will reflect that,” said Nick Merrill, who is currently Clinton’s only on-the-record spokesman.

The expected campaign manager, Robby Mook, values organizing as much as he does data, strategy and messaging. He and campaign chairman John Podesta will be tasked with juggling competing interests and personalities within the campaign and outside of it, from the Clintons on down. Communications head Jennifer Palmieri, who left the Obama administration last week, is seen by reporters and operatives alike as someone who can disagree with those who cover the campaign but will do so respectfully and professionally.

During her last campaign, Clinton’s team was rife with backstabbing, credit claiming, and finger-pointing. Decisions were often put off indefinitely and then made under duress. Her communications staff could be abusive and uncooperative with reporters. For much of the campaign, she was cloistered from voters, reluctant to even hint at the historic nature of her candidacy. And Bill Clinton, at times one of his wife’s greatest assets, was also often huge liability, letting his anger toward Barack Obama show throughout the early months of 2008.

Clinton is expected to announce her next steps in early April. She is in a stage where she doesn’t have to report spending on staff or travel, though she will need to do so retroactively once her campaign launches.

In a sign that the interim phase is approaching its end, Clinton has just two public appearances on the horizon, both set for Monday. 

In the morning, she’ll speak at a Center for American Progress forum on urban issues co-hosted by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. It’s a friendly environment–the moderator for the event is CAP President Neera Tanden, Clinton’s 2008 policy director–but it’s also a substantive one, where she’ll be able to talk about her policy positions in depth.

That night, Clinton will address the awards ceremony for the Toner Prize, presented to journalists in memory of the late New York Times political reporter Robin Toner, who led the paper’s coverage of Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign. The irony of the famously media-adverse Clinton addressing a journalism awards ceremony is not lost on reporters who remember that in 2008, her campaign set up a filing center in a men's restroom.

While people joining the campaign are confident about its potential, longtime Clinton supporter Donna Brazile cautioned that staffing itself is just one piece of the dynamic. "If it was just personnel, it would be easy," she said. "But it's about how you deploy all of the available resources at your disposal, how you manage it all, especially in the age of the super-PAC."

One strategist said that the primary reason people are attracted to working for the Clinton campaign is Clinton herself, but that the team she’s building is also a big draw.

Some joining the team, like pollster and strategist Joel Benenson and media adviser Jim Margolis, have deep roots in the two Obama presidential campaigns. Others, like Mandy Grunwald, have more than two decades of history with the Clintons. But plenty of other staffers have a mix of experiences. Marlon Marshall worked in the Obama White House and was deputy national field director in 2012. In 2008, he was Clinton's state field director in Nevada, Ohio and Indiana.

Mook has a loyal following and was described by two people who have worked with him as the only candidate for the campaign manager job who would have joined the team even if he hadn’t been given that role.

Kristina Schake, Michelle Obama’s former communications director, will be a deputy to Palmieri, while Attorney General Eric Holder’s top press aide, Brian Fallon, will leave his job at the end of the month to join as a press secretary. Other early hires for press jobs include the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s Jesse Ferguson, the Democratic National Committee’s Ian Sams and Jesse Lehrich of American Bridge, which has been conducting opposition research on the potential Republican candidates.

Merrill will continue to serve as a spokesman. "You need an infrastructure and operation in place and one guy can't do it all," said Jim Manley, the former top communications adviser to Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid, referring to Merrill. "They seem to be building that, but we'll have to wait to see how it runs."

Lehrich's hiring is a sign of how much the Clinton/Obama dynamic has changed since 2008.  His uncle is David Axelrod, Obama's political messaging guru. 

Just as important to defining the team as who’s on it is who isn’t. Clinton’s longtime communications adviser, Philippe Reines–who spent the 2008 cycle as her Senate press secretary–will not be on the campaign staff and has told people close to Clinton that he has made a deliberate decision to back away from day-to-day involvement. Known for his often-aggressive style, his less-central role is viewed as another signal of the Clinton campaign's media relations.

What's not clear is exactly what role those new mid-level staffers will fill. One future staffer who didn't want to speak on the record before the campaign launches and his hiring is announced said he felt comfortable leaving his current job because of his trust in the senior members of the team. Mook in particular is cited as someone who is unlikely to allow intramural disagreements between former Obama and Clinton staffers to disrupt the campaign.

The Democratic strategist said that the current team's organizational chart is a huge change from 2008, when seemingly everyone on the campaign was a senior adviser. 

“It’s a different season, it’s a different set of challenges,” Brazile said. “So of course you’re driving with a different set of tires.”

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