Dispatch February 2008

Inside the Clinton Shake-Up

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

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.

Joshua Green is an Atlantic senior editor.
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Joshua Green is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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