Will Hillary Clinton Be the Agent of Her Campaign’s Undoing—Again?

She’ll have to avoid the infighting that plagued her mismanaged 2008 run for the presidency
Photographer: Noah Berger/Bloomberg

The last time Hillary Clinton was riding high as a presidential candidate was March 5, 2008. She had just beaten Barack Obama in the Ohio and Texas primaries. Outwardly, Clinton finally seemed to have found her voice. She had momentum. But on the inside, her campaign was coming apart. Top lieutenants were bitterly divided into rival camps, pushing contrary strategies. One side wanted Clinton to attack her upstart opponent. The other urged her to display a softer, more feminine side to build support. Mostly, though, her advisers were consumed with destroying each other, as a flood of leaked e-mails later made clear.

The glow of her victories didn’t last. On the front page of the next day’s Washington Post, the feuding and back-stabbing spilled into public view: “Even in Victory, Clinton Team is Battling Itself.” This proved too much for Robert Barnett, the Washington super-lawyer and longtime adviser to the Clintons, who fired off an e-mail lighting into her senior staff:

“STOP IT!!!! I have help [sic] my tongue for weeks. After this morning’s WP story, no longer. This makes me sick. This circular firing squad that is occurring is unattractive, unprofessional, unconscionable, and unacceptable. ... It must stop.”

It didn’t. Clinton’s campaign never adjusted and finally collapsed, brought down by the chaos she allowed to flourish.

The seven years since Hillary Clinton’s last presidential bid have induced a kind of amnesia about the true reason for her loss, a subject newly relevant now she’s running again. Several factors cloud our ability to recollect it clearly: the passage of time; Democrats’ desire to put a bruising primary race behind them; and, above all, the mythologizing of Barack Obama’s campaign brain trust, which casts him as a figure of destiny and her as someone who history swept aside.

Bloomberg Businessweek, April 20-26, 2015
Photographer: Andrew Burton/Getty Images

Obama was indeed a rare talent, but his skill alone wasn’t what cinched the nomination. Clinton blew a winnable race, despite having had almost every conceivable advantage. Oddly, the one thing she truly lacked was the very thing she chose to present as her primary qualification for the presidency: executive leadership skills. As Clinton often declared, in an obvious dig at Obama’s inexperience, she alone had the capacity to “do the job from Day One.” Yet whatever management skills Clinton may possess, she didn’t deploy in 2008.

Although Clinton herself received Barnett’s e-mail and many more like it, she didn’t act, and the feuding carried on. In his e-mail, Barnett promised that a reckoning would come soon enough. “After this campaign is over, there will be plenty of time to assess blame or claim credit,” he wrote. But the imperative after Clinton’s grudging, drawn-out concession was to project an image of Democratic unity so as not to impede Obama’s path to the White House. The assessment never came. Instead, when the Democratic primary campaign was over, many of her top advisers leaked internal e-mails and strategy memos—I was the grateful recipient of many of these—that provide the best glimpse of Clinton’s management shortcomings.

The disputes first arose over how Clinton should present herself. In a series of memos, her chief strategist, Mark Penn, urged her to be “the power candidate” because most voters “see the presidents as the ‘father’ of the country [although] they are open to the first father being a woman.” Penn viewed Margaret Thatcher as a model and counseled Clinton not to concern herself with “good humor and warmth.” He wrote, “We are more Thatcher than anyone else. ... We want to intimidate.” Throughout the campaign, Penn and Bill Clinton favored aggressive attacks.

Other senior advisers, such as Harold Ickes and Mandy Grunwald, disagreed. They rejected the “Iron Lady” strategy and pushed Clinton to emphasize her softer side, worried that attacking Obama would only deepen the impression of Clinton as imperious and aloof. Throughout the primaries, Clinton vacillated between hard (attacking Obama) and soft (crying in New Hampshire), never settling on a strategy.

Within the campaign, leaks became the weapon of choice to influence decisions. Early on, Clinton’s deputy campaign manager, Mike Henry, wrote a memo pointing out the steep cost and risk of competing in Iowa, since, if Clinton lost there, it would shatter the idea of her inevitability. “This effort may bankrupt the campaign and provide little if any political advantage,” he wrote. Henry’s memo was leaked to the New York Times, forcing Clinton to commit to competing in the state—which Obama won, destroying, sure enough, any sense that she was unbeatable.

Things got so bad that someone upset over losing a parking spot even leaked an e-mail demanding that junior staffers move their cars to free up spaces for the campaign manager, Patti Solis Doyle, and her staff. The intention was simply to embarrass Doyle.

By April 2008, Doyle had been replaced and Penn sidelined, but still the chaos rolled on. Advisers leaked and freelanced to the press with impunity. “I don’t mean to be an asshole, but ...,” the pollster Geoff Garin, Penn’s replacement, wrote in an April e-mail, later leaked, that was intended to buttress the campaign’s lead spokesman, “Senator Clinton has given Howard Wolfson both the responsibility and the authority to make final decisions about how this campaign delivers its messages.”

Meanwhile, the Clinton campaign so badly mismanaged its finances that it lacked the resources to compete, even after the candidate made a personal loan of $5 million. From the outset, she seemed to operate from the premise that the Clinton brand was invincible, which bred complacency and left her vulnerable to a nimble challenger. In fact, Clinton’s downfall was not so different from that of General Motors, another storied American brand sliding toward bankruptcy that summer due to mismanagement.

Obama would eventually bail out GM, and he rescued Clinton from political bankruptcy, too. Today, both are thriving. Making Clinton Secretary of State provided her with a platform to rebuild her career. Clinton has always been a mediocre candidate on the stump, but over the years she has made herself into a supremely effective politician. Much as she did during her Senate tenure, Clinton used her time at the State Department to rehabilitate her political image. She did so mainly by dint of hard work, though she was willing to subordinate her ego and ambition to someone else’s, at least for a spell.

As Secretary of State, Clinton won near-universal respect and a reputation for brisk competence, all while managing to avoid taking any major risks that might have set her back. (Republicans are trying anyway, with her handling of the Benghazi attacks.) Her billboard achievement at Foggy Bottom—a detail that manages to find its way into every book, speech, and profile of her—is that she logged nearly a million miles jetting back and forth across the globe, a portrait of diligence in service to her country. During this period, her favorability ratings soared. Clinton entered the State Department in January 2009 surrounded by question marks; by the time she left in February 2013, she was the Democratic-nominee-in-waiting.

That impression has only deepened as potential opponents such as Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts have opted not to run. Those who do appear likely to challenge her (Martin O’Malley, Jim Webb) barely register in the polls and have little hope of securing the political talent and resources necessary to pose a threat. Despite the insistence of those in Clinton’s inner circle that she does not consider herself the “inevitable” nominee, that’s what she appears to be. This time, no Obama-like figure is going to test her.

The danger for Democrats, then, is that Clinton won’t come under any real pressure until next summer, when she faces the Republican nominee. No one knows whether she’ll be able to guide her campaign through adversity or whether she’ll again be the agent of her own undoing. Does CEO Clinton really exist or not?

She has taken several obvious steps in the right direction, such as appointing a strong chairman, John Podesta, to prevent any more damaging factionalism, and seeking to ease the mutual antagonism with the press. As her announcement video confirmed, she’ll focus squarely on the issue of middle-class economic advancement, in counterpoint to Democrats’ disastrous micro-obsessed campaigns in the last midterm elections.

But there have also been pointed reminders of the candidate who never settled on a strategy, tried to be all things to all people, and lost. Clinton’s long delay in addressing the uproar over her private e-mail server while at State was, according to Politico, the result of differences among her advisers over when and how to respond. The tense press conference that followed was more old Hillary than new.

To improve the culture, Clinton has made a point of keeping many of her quarrelsome old advisers at arm’s length and seeding her new operation with veterans of the “no-drama” Obama campaigns. But Clinton advisers never really go away; they just fall back and await their moment to return. This is probably why Clinton chose a new campaign manager, Robby Mook, who’s not only experienced in Obama’s data-driven culture but has a reputation for gracefully handling outsized egos while keeping them at arm’s length. Knowing what he might encounter, Mook sent a memo in early April urging an attitude of positivity and cooperation. Lovely sentiment, but it may not be sufficient. Even Penn, Clinton’s chief strategist in the last campaign, made early gestures of goodwill, such as presenting his senior colleagues silver bowls etched with the words of Horace Mann: “Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity.” It didn’t keep the campaign from imploding. Huma Abedin, her close aide for years, has been installed just beneath Podesta as the campaign’s vice chair.

Perhaps the biggest management challenge of all is the one she’s married to. Bill Clinton can be any candidate’s most effective advocate, as Obama discovered at the 2012 Democratic convention in Charlotte. But in 2008, he was mostly a liability, offending many Democratic voters with comments that demeaned Obama’s victory in South Carolina and referring to his opposition to the Iraq War as “the biggest fairy tale I’ve ever seen.”

All the careful planning and creative imagery—the upbeat video, the Iowa road trip—intended to distinguish Clinton from the candidate who ran last time, won’t matter if she hasn’t realized that her own shortcomings are what doomed her. In the end, she’s the only one with plausible authority to direct her own campaign. And the best way to assert control of her new operation would be for her to develop what was so sorely missing last time—a clear, overarching justification for her candidacy.

The best rationale for Clinton 2016 is the same one embedded in the attacks Republicans are already making: that she’s a creature of Washington who embodies the past, and that it’s time for a new face and an outsider. Clinton can’t avoid this critique. But she can subvert it by presenting her two decades in the White House, Senate, and State Department as experience that’s left her uniquely equipped to do what polls say Americans are pining for: Make Washington function better.

Clinton has always been called a “polarizing” figure (an increasingly meaningless designation that applies to every national politician, as voters have become more partisan). But she has an underappreciated credential that could be a weapon in the upcoming race: a record of thriving in an acrimonious, Republican-dominated climate like the one we have now.

In 2000, the same year George W. Bush was elected on the promise to be “a uniter, not a divider,” Clinton won a New York Senate seat. The Senate Majority Leader, Trent Lott, captured the prevailing Republican animus toward her when he suggested, somewhat too eagerly, that she might get “hit by lightning” before taking her seat.

During most of her time in the Senate, Lott’s party controlled one or both houses of Congress and the White House. Clinton couldn’t ignore hostile Republicans. “The thing about Hillary, whether you like her or not, is that she wants to make progress on issues,” says Neera Tanden, the president of the Center for American Progress and Clinton’s former legislative director in the Senate. “I worked for her at a time when Democrats were in the minority, so you really couldn’t make any progress without Republicans. Back then, Congress didn’t feel superfunctional. But she developed really good relationships, particularly with John McCain and Lindsey Graham.”

By the time she left the Senate, Clinton, not Bush, had proved to be the uniter. By my count, she teamed up on legislation with 49 different Republicans, including such notable critics as Lott, Graham, and even Tom DeLay, all three of whom were key figures in her husband’s impeachment.

As voters begin contemplating who should become the next president, Clinton can, if she chooses, make the strongest claim that she’s best suited to manage in the deteriorating conditions in Washington. How much will that matter? Probably more than at any time in the recent past. Beneath Americans’ intensely negative feelings toward Washington, and Congress in particular, lies an appreciation that the job of making the government function effectively will require more than just a new occupant in the Oval Office. A Washington Post-ABC News poll last month found that more Americans desire “experience” (55 percent) than “a new direction” (37 percent) in a presidential candidate. Clinton’s old line about her readiness to “do the job from Day One” may be more compelling this time around.

A steady majority of Americans continue to tell pollsters that they want compromise from Washington. Here, too, Clinton may have hidden appeal. A recent Pew Research poll found they believe by a 4-to-1 margin that women are better at working out compromises than men.

It would be no small irony if the exhaustion with partisanship that these numbers show turned out to be a positive, rather than a negative, force for Hillary Clinton. Of course, the prerequisite to any claim that she can make Washington function more effectively is that Clinton first pass the test she failed before—and run a professional campaign.

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