Teacher and Apprentice

Hillary Clinton tried to teach Barack Obama about power, but then he got ideas of his own. A story of nasty surprises, dueling war rooms, and the Drudge Report

The major problem with a process-oriented campaign, as Democrats from Gary Hart to Bill Bradley have discovered, is that it tends to appeal to elites, who vote aspirationally, rather than to the much broader pool of primary voters, who tend to focus on tangibles, such as health-care benefits and tax credits. Clinton has won support with policies targeted at older voters, women, and those without a college degree—what political analysts term “downscale voters,” who also happen to dominate the Democratic electorate in places like Iowa, which holds the first presidential caucus.

Another tension in process campaigns is behavioral. Practitioners can become handcuffed by their own idealism. Having pledged to run “a different kind of campaign” that wouldn’t traffic in the mudslinging and personal attacks so common to politics today, Obama boxed himself in. “The campaigns shouldn’t be about making each other look bad,” he declared in his brief appearance at the DNC winter meeting. “They should be about figuring out how we can all do some good for this precious country of ours. That’s our mission. And in this mission, our rivals won’t be one another, and I would assert it won’t even be the other party. It’s going to be cynicism that we’re fighting against.” This kind of sentiment is a large part of Obama’s appeal. But it’s also a good illustration of why process-oriented campaigns often run into trouble. Committing himself to a higher standard of conduct meant that either Obama would refrain from doing much of what campaigns do to jockey for position or he would endure criticism for failing to live up to his own standard. In a campaign staffed by talented, though conventional, operatives, this would prove problematic.

In June, Obama’s staff slipped reporters a memorandum about the Clintons’ financial ties to Indian American entrepreneurs who benefited from job outsourcing—an act well within the norm of political conduct, though the memo did have a rather tasteless title (“Hillary Clinton, D-Punjab”). A Clinton aide caught wind of it and, no doubt inspired by Obama’s call for better conduct, persuaded a reporter for a Capitol Hill newspaper to disclose its source. Obama was forced to apologize.

But he pointedly did not pledge to refrain from disseminating such information about his opponent. Belatedly, his campaign has learned to fight back. In August, Obama’s team scored a significant hit by helping to place a story in several newspapers revealing that Norman Hsu, a major Clinton donor, had skipped town after having pleaded no contest to a charge of grand theft 15 years earlier and still faced an outstanding warrant. Hsu fled once more (he was captured in Colorado in September) and ignited a costly media frenzy for Clinton, who decided to return $850,000 in donations that he had arranged for her. (Hsu had also contributed to Obama.)

But Obama seemed to recoil from many of the tasks that have come to be expected of someone serious about running for president. Cerebral and loquacious, given to lengthy disquisitions, Obama chafed at the sound-bite culture of politics and disliked criticizing opponents by name. One day in New Hampshire, caught up in the moment, he called Hillary “Bush-Cheney lite”—a phrase he never again repeated. Occasionally, Obama behaved as if conventional expectations were beneath him and an insult to voters’ intelligence. “The one thing I am absolutely certain of,” Obama told me, “is that if all I’m offering is the same Democratic narrative that has been offered for the last 20 years, then there’s really no point in my running, because Senator Clinton is going to be very adept at delivering that message. What makes it worthwhile for me to run is the belief that we can actually change the narrative and create a working majority that we haven’t seen in a very long time—and that, frankly, the Clintons never put together.” Though he dislikes cattle-call interest-group forums, he prepared diligently for a June forum on black issues at Howard University in Washington, D.C., understanding that, by dint of his race and life experience, he had a chance to shine. Obama believed he’d excelled during the debate, and was stunned when press coverage focused on a single applause line—from Hillary Clinton. “If HIV/AIDS were the leading cause [of] the death of white women between the ages of 25 and 34, there would be an outraged outcry in this country,” she had declared. Obama, by contrast, was chided for his long-winded answers. “He was very, very frustrated,” one of his friends recalls.

Two weeks later, at an NAACP forum in Philadelphia, Obama, according to The New Republic’s Jonathan Cohn, “played to the crowd.” The press rewarded him. A friend e-mailed him a note of congratulations. “Well, but all I did was throw sound bites back at them,” Obama wrote back.

His campaign staffers, too, have become frustrated by the focus of the media’s attention, specifically that the press has not covered Clinton in the way they expected it would. During an interview this summer, Obama’s friend Valerie Jarrett said to me, unbidden, “He is a man who is devoted to his wife. There aren’t going to be any skeletons in his closet in terms of his personal life at all. Period.” And at a campaign event in Iowa, one of Obama’s aides plopped down next to me and spoke even more bluntly. He wanted to know when reporters would begin to look into Bill Clinton’s postpresidential sex life.

Before Obama decided to run, his advisers spent little time debating strategy and focused instead on how their candidate would maintain his sense of self—his “authenticity,” as one of them put it to me. This helps to explain why they regarded so many of his early stumbles as insignificant instances of simply failing to conform to the standard way of running for president. But as the race for the nomination heads into the final stretch, many of the things they thought would unfold have so far failed to materialize.

Early on, Obama’s aides sneered at the Clinton campaign for subordinating strategy to tactics and boasted that Obama had explicitly rejected the day-to-day combat that consumed Clinton’s team. “It was a deliberate choice we made,” one of Obama’s closest advisers told me. “And I think it was a mistake.” This adviser added that many of the assumptions about Hillary Clinton were flawed, too. In particular, Obama and his aides assumed that Democrats would judge Clinton to be too polarizing to win; so far the polls do not bear that out.

Axelrod won’t concede that the campaign misread Clinton. “If we underestimated anything,” he said, “it was the degree to which people would assign credit to her for the years of the Clinton administration—that that was sort of quasi-executive experience, whether warranted or not warranted. The name itself implied a certain mastery; she gets bonus points for that, to a degree that I think was surprising. I think those come with challenges, but she gets them.”

One great surprise to the Obama team was Clinton’s remarkable transformation on the one issue where Obama indisputably trumped her in the eyes of the party’s electorate: the Iraq War. By summer’s end, Obama’s advisers believed that Clinton had largely neutralized their attacks. Clinton’s advisers cite two reasons for their success: first, that her congressional voting record on Iraq was virtually identical to his; and second, that Clinton deftly exploited the vicissitudes of congressional debate, which focused almost exclusively on how and when to withdraw troops. Reasoning, correctly, that Democratic voters were as interested in what should be done now as in who voted for the war then, she used clear, forward-looking language: “If George Bush doesn’t end this war before he leaves office, when I’m president, I will.” It worked.

Last February, I asked Hillary Clinton to describe how she has changed since leaving the White House. At the time, her answer struck me as typical Clinton boilerplate: She brought to the presidential race a “unique combination of experience both from my life prior to the White House and the eight years in the White House and now my full term in the Senate, where I’ve learned even more about how to get things done in the Senate, about how to build coalitions.”

Looking back now, on the eve of the Democratic primaries, her answer seems a lot more credible. Clinton spent six years in a nonexecutive role. She gained firsthand experience working with her enemies. She spent four years as the chair of the Democratic Steering and Outreach Committee, ordinarily a thankless bureaucratic post that requires fielding complaints from every conceivable corner of the party, but in Clinton’s case an invaluable opportunity to listen and connect. And when the chance arrived, in 2004, to cut short her apprenticeship and seek the White House, she passed.

“I always felt that it was a good thing that she spent all those years in the Senate, and maybe didn’t meet with as many fund-raisers as she could have,” a high-level Clinton campaign official told me. “At the end of the day, this created a texture—a knowledge—that really comes out.”

Most surprising, Clinton has even managed to repair her relationship with the press, a change that seems to have made her more secure in her political identity than she’s generally given credit for being. For all the criticism she’s endured as being calculating and politically opportunistic, Clinton has steadfastly ignored entreaties from some advisers and criticism from the press, and refused to apologize for her 2002 vote in favor of the Iraq War. Her private refrain, say insiders, is the same as her public one: “I’ve done nothing wrong, so I have nothing to apologize for.”

In the weeks ahead, Obama is likely to argue that Democrats cannot trust Clinton to create the change they’re longing for, while Clinton will embrace the role of nominee-apparent. Obama’s advisers believe Edwards will fade before the Iowa caucuses and—assuming those who don’t yet support Clinton probably don’t want to—that his support will naturally flow to Obama. And they’re convinced that the Democratic Party’s decision to invalidate Florida’s delegates as punishment for holding an early primary provides a great benefit for Obama by giving him a pretext to bypass an expensive early state. Axelrod maintains that doubts about Clinton will grow as the primaries draw nearer, and that Obama’s cautious campaign will ultimately prevail. One important advantage Obama has over insurgent-idealists who preceded him (like Hart and Bradley) is that he has the money to keep pace with the front-runner.

In the end, though, Hillary Clinton may be the candidate who best understood the Democratic electorate—she certainly understood and accepted the demands placed upon anyone serious about winning. A primary that Obama hoped would be a referendum on how politics is practiced may be decided not over questions of protocol and process, but instead over something more basic. After eight long years in the wilderness, Clinton senses that what Democrats want most is victory.

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Marc Ambinder is an Atlantic associate editor.

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