The Front-Runner’s Fall

Hillary Clinton’s campaign was undone by a clash of personalities more toxic than anyone imagined. E-mails and memos—published here for the first time—reveal the backstabbing and conflicting strategies that produced an epic meltdown.
Also see:

The Clinton Memos
Read the full collection of the campaign's strategy memos and emails.

For all that has been written and said about Hillary Clinton’s epic collapse in the Democratic primaries, one issue still nags. Everybody knows what happened. But we still don’t have a clear picture of how it happened, or why.

The after-battle assessments in the major newspapers and newsweeklies generally agreed on the big picture: the campaign was not prepared for a lengthy fight; it had an insufficient delegate operation; it squandered vast sums of money; and the candidate herself evinced a paralyzing schizophrenia—one day a shots-’n’-beers brawler, the next a Hallmark Channel mom. Through it all, her staff feuded and bickered, while her husband distracted. But as a journalistic exercise, the “campaign obit” is inherently flawed, reflecting the viewpoints of those closest to the press rather than empirical truth.

How did things look on the inside, as they unraveled?

To find out, I approached a number of current and former Clinton staffers and outside consultants and asked them to share memos, e-mails, meeting minutes, diaries—anything that would offer a contemporaneous account. The result demonstrates that paranoid dysfunction breeds the impulse to hoard. Everything from major strategic plans to bitchy staff e-mail feuds was handed over. (See for yourself: much of it is posted online at www.theatlantic.com/clinton.)

Two things struck me right away. The first was that, outward appearances notwithstanding, the campaign prepared a clear strategy and did considerable planning. It sweated the large themes (Clinton’s late-in-the-game emergence as a blue-collar champion had been the idea all along) and the small details (campaign staffers in Portland, Oregon, kept tabs on Monica Lewinsky, who lived there, to avoid any surprise encounters). The second was the thought: Wow, it was even worse than I’d imagined! The anger and toxic obsessions overwhelmed even the most reserved Beltway wise men. Surprisingly, Clinton herself, when pressed, was her own shrewdest strategist, a role that had never been her strong suit in the White House. But her advisers couldn’t execute strategy; they routinely attacked and undermined each other, and Clinton never forced a resolution. Major decisions would be put off for weeks until suddenly she would erupt, driving her staff to panic and misfire.

Above all, this irony emerges: Clinton ran on the basis of managerial competence—on her capacity, as she liked to put it, to “do the job from Day One.” In fact, she never behaved like a chief executive, and her own staff proved to be her Achilles’ heel. What is clear from the internal documents is that Clinton’s loss derived not from any specific decision she made but rather from the preponderance of the many she did not make. Her hesitancy and habit of avoiding hard choices exacted a price that eventually sank her chances at the presidency. What follows is the inside account of how the campaign for the seemingly unstoppable Democratic nominee came into being, and then came apart.

2003–2006: Laying the Groundwork

As long ago as 2003, the Clintons’ pollster, Mark Penn, was quietly measuring Hillary’s presidential appeal, with an eye toward the 2004 election. Polling suggested that her prospects were “reasonably favorable,” but Clinton herself never seriously considered running. Instead, over the next three years, a handful of her advisers met periodically to prepare for 2008. They believed the biggest threat was John Edwards.

Decisions made before her 2006 reelection to the Senate were to have important consequences downstream. Perhaps the biggest was Clinton’s choosing to forgo the tradition of visiting early states like Iowa and New Hampshire. Even if she was presumed to be the heavy favorite, Clinton needed to win Iowa to maintain the impression of invincibility that she believed was her greatest advantage. And yet Iowa was a vulnerability. Both husband and wife lacked ties there: Bill Clinton had skipped the 1992 caucuses because Iowa’s Senator Tom Harkin was running; in 1996, Clinton had run unopposed.

With her Senate race looming, she feared a backlash if she signaled her presidential intentions. If New Yorkers thought her presumptuous, they could punish her at the polls and weaken her national standing. A collective decision was made not to discuss a presidential run until she had won reelection, leaving the early pursuit of Iowa to John Edwards and Barack Obama.

The effect of these choices in Iowa became jarringly clear when Penn conducted a poll just after Clinton’s Senate reelection that showed her running a very distant third, barely ahead of the state’s governor, Tom Vilsack. The poll produced a curious revelation: Iowans rated Clinton at the top of the field on questions of leadership, strength, and experience—but most did not plan to vote for her, because they didn’t like her. This presented a basic conundrum: Should Clinton run a positive campaign, to persuade Iowans to reconsider her? Or should she run a negative campaign that would accuse her opponents of being untrustworthy and under-qualified? Clinton’s top advisers never agreed on the answer. Over the course of the campaign, they split into competing factions that drifted in and out of Clinton’s favor but always seemed to work at cross purposes. And Clinton herself could never quite decide who was right.

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Joshua Green is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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