2016 Elections

On Planet Clinton, Everyone's a Critic

Which aides will take the blame for the rout in New Hampshire? Nevada could make it worse.

High anxiety.

Photographer: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Hillary Clinton's New Hampshire trouncing at the hands of Bernie Sanders has set Clintonland afire. The rout set loose a cacophony of complaints from allies about the candidate's campaign strategy and staff.

If she loses the Nevada caucuses this weekend the clamor will grow louder.

It stands to reason that the biggest targets for second-guessing are the most visible and obvious staffers: campaign chief Robby Mook and pollster Joel Benenson.

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Some of the second-guessers talk about better candidate messaging, or taking on Sanders more effectively, or reassigning staff in key battlegrounds. Yet there's more criticism than solutions and for a good reason: There's not much they can do about the shortcomings of their candidate.

Some of the carping is from people who have personal scores to settle. Take Mark Penn, the top strategist in Clinton's ill-fated 2008 campaign. He is putting out the word that he regularly talks about the campaign with former President Bill Clinton, who had started criticizing this year's staffers even before the New Hampshire votes were tallied. Penn was taken to the cleaners in 2008 by the team representing Senator Barack Obama, and eventually dumped.

But there are other second-guessers, with various motives and perspectives. They include:

  • The ex-president and some of his allies. This gets complicated. No politician is closer to the Clintons than Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe. He is high on Mook, who ran his gubernatorial campaign. Bill Clinton isn't, and his political instincts are the stuff of legend, but he often wears blinders when it comes to analyzing his wife's performance. This group talks about recruiting veterans from old Clinton wars; Ron Klain, a former staff chief to two vice presidents, has recently been mentioned.
  • Hillary Clinton aides like Huma Abedin, officially the deputy campaign manager but perhaps the candidate's closest confidant, and Cheryl Mills, another longtime adviser. The most equal of equals is the Clintons' daughter, Chelsea, who, insiders say, forcefully offers political advice despite a lack of professional political experience.
  • The super-PACs. Guy Cecil, a longtime Clinton adviser and top Democratic strategist, runs the super-PAC Priorities USA Action. A top strategist is Paul Begala, who along with James Carville was the architect of Bill Clinton's 1992 presidential victory. They steer clear of the campaign, as the law requires, but deal with donors and politicians. More problematic is another pro-Clinton super-PAC, Correct the Record. That's the research and response group run by David Brock, a onetime Clinton-hating right winger turned Clinton cheerleader.
  • The donors. Whether from Hollywood, trial lawyers' associations or Wall Street, fat cats want one thing: a return on investment, namely winning. Clinton donors are not a happy lot after New Hampshire, and if the inevitability of a Clinton victory disappears so will some of the money.

It's easier for Clinton partisans to blame staffers than to acknowledge their candidate's flaws. She's failed to make the emotional connection to voters that any successful politician needs; she represents gradualism in an agitated time. She will continue to have a problem with young voters however often she pals around with Katy Perry.

A little more transparency could help. I used to believe that the controversy over her private e-mail server at the State Department caused most of the decline in her favorability ratings.

Now, though, the huge speaking fees she received from big Wall Street firms appear to be the bigger problem. People know that the Clintons are wealthy. So why did they need to take hundreds of thousands of dollars to pal around with moneyed interests? That's harder to explain than e-mail.

The best answer to Clinton's political problems is patience. After a tough slog, she's still better positioned than Sanders to be nominated in Philadelphia this summer. Republican presidential candidates have plenty of personal and political flaws, too. But in the Hillary constellation, patience is in short supply.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.