Dispatch February 2008

Inside the Clinton Shake-Up

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

It’s important to put all this in the context of the time and to remember how strikingly different the political landscape appeared then. Going through my reporting notes yesterday, I came across a quote that was given to me at the time by a close friend of the Clintons that seems comically misguided today but nicely captures the attitude that prevailed in Hillaryland in 2006, and suggests why Clinton might have been unwilling to move against her loyal servitor. “She is piggybacking the only black president the United States has ever known,” the Clinton friend piously lectured to me. “Given African Americans’ prominence in the Democratic Party, people who talk up other candidates don’t understand the impact that her husband will have. He won’t passively sit back in this election. He is going to be an activist and he will get on the phone to black ministers and they will be there for her.” (He had an impact, all right.)

This belief in Hillary’s unassailability fostered a complacency that may cost Clinton more dearly than anyone could have imagined. But at the time, no one recognized what was happening. Instead of launching her presidential campaign, even informally, Clinton and Solis Doyle insisted that no one so much as mention the possibility of a White House bid until after she’d been reelected to the Senate—a move insiders now concede was a serious tactical flaw that allowed Barack Obama’s campaign to take off unchallenged. The error wasn’t simply letting Obama get a head start in raising money. It was failing to realize that the world of political fund-raising had changed dramatically since Bill Clinton had last run for president, in a way that put a premium on different kinds of fund-raisers than the ones to which the Clintons had ties. Campaign-finance reform had banned the large, six-figure “soft-money” contributions the Clintons once relied on from people like Ron Burkle, Steve Bing, and David Geffen. In their place, small, “hard-money” donations took on far greater importance, and a new generation of fund-raisers able to corral many people to write four-figure checks suddenly became the true prize. But many of them—people like Mark Gorenberg, Alan Solomont, and Steve Westly—were not as well known to the Clintons. “I think of the difference as being between ‘writers’ and ‘raisers,’ ” Gorenberg, a venture capitalist who was John Kerry’s biggest fund-raiser in the 2004 election, told me last year. Like Gorenberg, many of the new hard-money fundraisers are tech moguls who hail from a wealth center, Silicon Valley, that barely existed during Bill Clinton’s last run.

With Hillaryland in silent mode, Obama got first crack at those donors. “Not a lot, but some people, were losing sleep about Obama as early as last winter, keeping an eye on his moves and tracking his hires and outreach,” a Clinton insider admitted to me last spring. “There were two reasons nothing happened. First, by admitting he’s a factor, you’re giving him the credibility that you don’t want him to have. Second, everybody thought he would flame out. They didn’t think he could pull a money team and enough talent together to mount a serious challenge.”

Of course, Obama did just that, relying on the new donor class Clinton had ignored. “When Obama came along,” an embittered Clinton aide told me, “suddenly you had your choice of rock star.”

Even after grasping the magnitude of the threat, the Clinton campaign didn’t react quickly and stuck to the strategy of trying to project an aura of inevitability. Here, too, Solis Doyle was disastrous; her lack of skill in areas other than playing the loyal heavy began to show. The first public sign of this came just after Clinton’s reelection to the Senate. Even though Clinton had faced no serious opponent, it turned out that Solis Doyle, as campaign manager, had burned through more than $30 million. As this New York Times story makes clear, the donor base was incensed. Toward the end of the Senate campaign, Solis Doyle did her best to bolster the impression of the inevitability of Hillary’s nomination as the Democratic presidential candidate, spreading word that Clinton’s Senate reelection fund-raising had gone so exceptionally well that $40 million to $50 million would be left after Election Day to transfer to the incipient presidential campaign. But this turned out to be a wild exaggeration—and Solis Doyle must have known it was. Disclosure filings revealed a paltry $10 million in cash on hand; far from conveying Hillary’s inevitability, this had precisely the opposite effect, encouraging, rather than frightening off, potential challengers.

Rather than punish Solis Doyle or raise questions about her fitness to lead, Clinton chose her to manage the presidential campaign for reasons that should now be obvious: above all, Clinton prizes loyalty and discipline, and Solis Doyle demonstrated both traits, if little else. This suggests to me that for all the emphasis Clinton has placed on executive leadership in this campaign, her own approach is a lot closer to the current president’s than her supporters might like to admit.

The extended denouement that began after the Iowa caucuses and finally culminated with Sunday’s departure reinforces this supposition. By all accounts, Solis Doyle’s firing became imminent after the first loss, as the extent of the damage sank in. (My colleague Marc Ambinder has provided plentiful detail on this here and here.) She’d been dispatched to Iowa to oversee operations in the final weeks before the caucuses, and Clinton still finished third. She’d been placed in charge of the campaign’s relationship with John Kerry and hoped to get an endorsement, but he’d chosen to back Obama. And of course, the campaign had hemorrhaged money, which Solis Doyle had managed to conceal. The ax was expected to fall the day after New Hampshire (Solis Doyle opted not to depart on her own after Iowa), but it didn’t happen until weeks afterward because Clinton put off making the crucial decision—just as her alter ego was often charged with doing. (The best blow-by-blow account is this prescient New Republic piece by Michelle Cottle that was read avidly inside the campaign because it’s so accurate.) Even then, Solis Doyle’s departure took a near-mutiny to bring about. Williams and Lieberman left their jobs last week; this finally seemed to have influenced Clinton to oust Solis Doyle.

In one sense, Solis Doyle performed exactly as Hillary had hoped. Somewhat to my surprise, the longstanding fissures in Hillaryland never truly erupted when Clinton came under presidential-campaign pressure, certainly not the way they did in 2000. For all the chaos and disillusionment with Clinton’s performance so far inside the campaign, very little of it had leaked to the press until just recently. And despite her late start, Clinton did not lag on the money front: she has raised $175 million since winning her Senate seat in 2000, which should have been enough to fund a formidable campaign, even one that dragged on as long as this one has. That the money was so obviously mismanaged and Clinton was essentially left helpless to compete in last weekend’s primaries and caucuses is the reason Solis Doyle ultimately had to go. The problem, as before, was mismanagement—only this time against a worthy enough opponent that the cost was obvious to everyone.

Even at this late date, Clinton has a clear path to winning the nomination if she can prevail in Ohio and Texas, as she’s expected to. Solis Doyle’s replacement, Maggie Williams, is thought to possess many of the skills her predecessor lacked, while enjoying a relationship with Clinton that is every bit as close. Every reaction I’ve gotten from inside the campaign has been exuberance at Williams’s arrival—followed by concern over whether the change was made too late.

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Joshua Green is an Atlantic senior editor.

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