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Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Is there a new self-awareness? Or just the same old react-and-dither?

Bloomberg BusinessWeek remembers the she-Clinton's '08 campaign, and wonders if it will be any better with no meaningful opposition between here and the convention:

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 Iowa—which Obama won and, sure enough, destroyed 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 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. 
In an effort 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 is 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 referred 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...

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