Dispatch February 2008

Inside the Clinton Shake-Up

How Hillary's campaign managed itself into a ditch—and how it might get itself out

Like so much involving Hillary Clinton, Sunday’s departure of her campaign manager, Patti Solis Doyle, has gotten tons of attention, but its larger significance has been somewhat misunderstood. I’ve spent a fair amount of time over the last two years reporting on “Hillaryland,” as Clinton’s inner circle is known, for pieces like this one and this one, and also, infamously, for one that did not run when GQ magazine opted to kill it after learning of the Clinton campaign’s displeasure (full story here). The latter piece focused on the inner workings of Clinton’s presidential campaign and Solis Doyle’s controversial role in it, and I’ll draw on what I learned then to try to add perspective to recent happenings.

For the many people in and around Washington who obsess over the latest machinations in Hillaryland, the firing of Solis Doyle—and she was fired, several insiders confirm—is a big deal, but for reasons somewhat different from what the media coverage has suggested. Her title of “campaign manager” implies a loftier role than the one she actually played. She is the furthest thing from a Rove-like strategic genius (Mark Penn inhabits that role for Hillary), so her leaving doesn’t signify an impending change of strategy, as some reports seem to assume. Rather, Solis Doyle, who began as Clinton’s personal scheduler in 1991 (and who, as it happens, coined the term “Hillaryland”) was Clinton’s alter ego and was installed in the job specifically for that reason. Her performance in Clinton’s past races and especially in this one reflects all the good and the bad that the alter-ego designation carries. I’ve always felt that the most revealing thing about Solis Doyle is her oft-repeated line: “When I’m speaking, Hillary is speaking.” It is revealing both because it is true and because it conveys—and even flaunts—an arrogance that I think is the key to understanding all that has gone wrong for the Clinton campaign.

Such arrogance led directly to the idea that Clinton could simply project an air of inevitability and be assured her party’s nomination. If she wins—as she very well might—it will be in spite of her original approach. As one former Clinton staffer put it to me last spring: “There was an assumption that if you were a major donor and wanted to be an ambassador, go to state dinners with the queen—unless you were an outright fool, you were going to go with Hillary, whether you liked her or not. The attitude was ‘Where else are they going to go?’”

It’s important to emphasize that Solis Doyle was not the architect of the Clinton strategy. It was devised and agreed to by many of the campaign’s top staffers, and the candidate herself signed off on it. But in all my reporting and personal experience with the campaign, Solis Doyle probably embodied it more than anyone else. It’s not unfair that she lost her job; but it is unfair that no other senior staffers appear to be in danger of losing theirs.

No one could have predicted Barack Obama’s sudden rise, though the Clinton campaign was slower to recognize it than most. Solis Doyle’s failure is another matter. As much as Clinton touts her own “executive experience” and judgment, she made Solis Doyle her campaign manager because of Solis Doyle’s loyalty, rather than her skill, despite a trail of available evidence suggesting she was unsuited for the role.

To understand how this happened, it’s helpful to know a bit about the history of rivalry and factionalism in Hillaryland. The self-mythologizing tale most often told by its inhabitants is that during Bill Clinton’s administration, while his advisers were leaking left and right as they jockeyed for primacy and influence, Hillary’s were fiercely loyal. “My staff prided themselves on discretion, loyalty, and camaraderie, and we had our own special ethos,” Clinton wrote in her memoir, Living History. “While the West Wing had a tendency to leak, Hillaryland never did.”

But when Clinton ran for a New York Senate seat in 2000, that began to change. Without the drama of Bill Clinton’s administration to occupy the media, the spotlight fell squarely on Hillary’s advisers, who now included not just the loyal White House cadre, but others who had been added to her team, like Penn and Dwight Jewson, an advertising consultant specializing in branding who had helped sell Doritos, Red Wolf Beer, and the Taco Bell Value Menu. The arrival of these outsiders complicated the ever-shifting pecking order in Hillaryland, suddenly putting it on full display and making it more consequential than ever.

As Clinton stagnated in the polls that year, a turbulent divide opened up within her own camp over how to respond to her image problem. Tensions flared between advisers such as Penn and Mandy Grunwald, her media consultant, who wanted her to stick to the issues, and others, such as Jewson and Harold Ickes, who thought she should confront her chief shortcoming—the notion that she was power-hungry and calculating. As Michael Tomasky revealed in his fine memoir about the campaign, Hillary’s Turn, Jewson conducted a series of focus groups to see why Hillary wasn’t selling and learned that women saw her as “savvy, pushy, cold … back-stabbing … self-centered.” One woman compared Hillary to her mother-in-law. The battle between the camps intensified to the point that it began to go public, most notably when someone leaked Penn’s internal polling data to The New York Times Magazine . Penn and Ickes regularly erupted into shouting matches and eventually stopped speaking to each other, communicating instead through an intermediary.

With her staff’s squabbling threatening to torpedo her campaign, Clinton dispatched Solis Doyle to New York in August to serve as an enforcer and get things under control, which she largely managed to do. The leaks were contained, the play-it-safe camp of Penn and Grunwald ultimately prevailed, and Clinton herself did too, after Rudy Giuliani dropped out of the race. By squashing rivalries and imposing discipline, Solis Doyle distinguished herself in the eyes of the candidate.

After the race, Solis Doyle was put in charge of fund-raising and later became campaign manager for Clinton’s Senate reelection bid in 2006. She earned a reputation as a contentious, domineering boss. Along the way, many of the staff members who worked under her left or were forced out, including several high-powered members of Clinton’s inner circle, such as Kelly Craighead and Evelyn Lieberman, the deputy chief of staff to Bill Clinton famous for banishing Monica Lewinsky to the Pentagon. The frequent turnover in the fund-raising shop was a significant measure of Solis Doyle’s unpopularity. Clinton staffers are notably loyal, and turnover among them tends to be much lower than it is among the staffs of other politicians. Fund-raising under Solis Doyle was a glaring exception, chalking up the kind of body count you’d expect from an episode of The Sopranos. She was infamous among her colleagues for referring to herself as “the queen bee” and for her habit of watching daytime soap operas in her office. One frequent complaint among donors and outside advisers was that Solis Doyle often did not return calls or demonstrate the attention required in her position.

Concerns about Solis Doyle have preoccupied many in the campaign for several years. Clinton insiders say that her campaign chairman, Terry McAuliffe, launched an unsuccessful bid to remove Solis Doyle while on vacation with the Clintons two years ago. Two top campaign officials told me that Maggie Williams, Hillary’s former chief of staff (and, as of Sunday, her campaign manager), also sought and failed to have Solis Doyle removed two years ago. Last year, some of Bill Clinton’s former advisers, known as the “White Boys,” lobbied to oust her, too.

But because of Solis Doyle’s proximity to Hillary Clinton, because she demonstrated the loyalty and discretion Clinton so prized, and because no one appeared capable of challenging Clinton’s presumed status as the Democratic nominee-in-waiting, nothing was done. “What Patti has that is real power is the unquestioned trust and confidence of the candidate,” Paul Begala, a veteran of Bill Clinton’s campaigns, explained in an on-the-record interview last year. “That makes her bulletproof.”

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Joshua Green is an Atlantic senior editor.

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