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.

Read Geoffrey Garin's entire email

March 2007: The Strategy

Penn had won the trust of both Clintons by guiding Bill Clinton to reelection in 1996 and through the impeachment saga that followed. But his poll-tested centrism and brusque manner aroused suspicion and contempt among many of their advisers. In the White House and during Hillary’s Senate races, Penn often prevailed in internal disputes by brandishing his own poll numbers (which his opponents distrusted) and pointing out that he had delivered a Clinton to the White House once before.

In light of this history, he got off to an inauspicious start when Clinton entered the race in January 2007, by demanding the title “chief strategist” (previously he had been one of several “senior advisers”) and presenting each of his senior colleagues with a silver bowl inscribed with the words of Horace Mann: “Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity.”

Penn had clear ideas about how to engineer a win for Clinton, in Iowa and beyond. Obama had eclipsed Edwards right out of the gate and was experiencing the full measure of “next JFK” hype. In a memo dated March 19, 2007, Penn laid out an “Overall Strategy for Winning” built upon a coalition of voters he called “Invisible Americans,” a sort of reprise of Bill Clinton’s “forgotten middle class”:

     As this race unfolds, the winning coalition for us is clearer and clearer. There are three demographic variables that explain almost all of the voters in the primary—gender, party, and income. Race is a factor as well, but we are fighting hard to neutralize it.
      We are the candidate of people with needs.
      We win women, lower classes, and Democrats (about 3 to 1 in our favor).
      Obama wins men, upper class, and independents (about 2 to 1 in his favor).
      Edwards draws from these groups as well.
      Our winning strategy builds from a base of women, builds on top of that a lower and middle class constituency, and seeks to minimize his advantages with the high class democrats.
      If we double perform with WOMEN, LOWER AND MIDDLE CLASS VOTERS, then we have about 55% of the voters.
      The reason the Invisible Americans is so powerful is that it speaks to exactly how you can be a champion for those in needs [sic]. He may be the JFK in the race, but you are the Bobby.

Clinton was already under attack for an attitude of “inevitability”—the charge being that she imperiously viewed the primary process as a ratifying formality and would not deign to compete for what she felt she was owed. Penn’s memo makes clear that what she intended to project was “leadership” and “strength,” and that he had carefully created an image for her with that in mind. He believed that he had identified a winning coalition and knew which buttons to press to mobilize it:

     1) Start with a base of women.
      a. For these women you represent a breaking of barriers
      b. The winnowing out of the most competent and qualified in an unfair, male dominated world
      c. The infusion of a woman and a mother’s sensibilities into a world of war and neglect
      2) Add on a base of lower and middle class voters
      a. You see them; you care about them
      b. You were one of them, it is your history
      c. You are all about their concerns (healthcare, education, energy, child care, college etc.)
      d. Sense of patriotism, Americana
      3) Play defensively with the men and upper class voters
      a. Strength to end the war the right way
      b. Connect on the problems of the global economy, economics
      c. Foreign policy expert
      d. Unions
      Contest the black vote at every opportunity. Keep him pinned down there.
      Organize on college campuses. We may not be number 1 there, but we have a lot of fans—more than enough to sustain an organization in every college.

Penn’s prescription is notable because it is the rare instance of a Clinton campaign goal that panned out—the coalition she ended up winning a year later is the one described here. Penn’s memo is also notable for its tone: it reinforces rather than confronts the Clintons’ biases. “The biggest problem we have is the troika that has been set up to tear Hillary down,” he wrote.

It is a vast right and left wing conspiracy. Listening to Brit Hume say that Obama is surging while Hillary failed to do X is almost comical and certainly transparent. The right knows Obama is unelectable except perhaps against Attila the Hun, and a third party would come in then anyway.

By contrast, top consultants like Karl Rove usually aim to temper their clients’ biases with a cold dose of realism. I suspect the damaging persecution complex that both Clintons displayed drew much of its sustenance from memos like this one.

Penn also left no doubt about where he stood on the question of a positive versus negative strategy. He made the rather astonishing suggestion to target Obama’s “lack of American roots”:

All of these articles about his boyhood in Indonesia and his life in Hawaii are geared towards showing his background is diverse, multicultural and putting that in a new light.
      Save it for 2050.
      It also exposes a very strong weakness for him—his roots to basic American values and culture are at best limited. I cannot imagine America electing a president during a time of war who is not at his center fundamentally American in his thinking and in his values. He told the people of NH yesterday he has a Kansas accent because his mother was from there. His mother lived in many states as far as we can tell—but this is an example of the nonsense he uses to cover this up.
      How we could give some life to this contrast without turning negative:
      Every speech should contain the line you were born in the middle of America to the middle class in the middle of the last century. And talk about the basic bargain as about the deeply American values you grew up with, learned as a child and that drive you today. Values of fairness, compassion, responsibility, giving back.
      Let’s explicitly own ‘American’ in our programs, the speeches and the values. He doesn’t. Make this a new American Century, the American Strategic Energy Fund. Let’s use our logo to make some flags we can give out. Let’s add flag symbols to the backgrounds.

Clinton wisely chose not to go this route. But the defining clash within her campaign quickly became the disagreement over how hard to attack Obama, if at all. Invariably, Penn and Bill Clinton pressed for aggressive confrontation to tear Obama down, while senior advisers like Harold Ickes, Patti Solis Doyle, Mandy Grunwald, and Howard Wolfson counseled restraint and an emphasis on her softer side that would lift her up. The two strategies were directly at odds.

On March 29, Ickes, who oversaw the targeting and budget operation with the campaign’s manager, Solis Doyle, circulated a list of the campaign’s “Key Assumptions.” (Though Penn was “chief strategist,” he was a paid contractor, and thus barred from most targeting and budget planning.) Ickes believed that Iowa and New Hampshire could determine Clinton’s fate, and that the February 5 Super Tuesday primaries would determine the nominee. No mention was made of the delegates or the later-caucus states that actually figured so decisively.

Ickes seemed attuned to the asymmetric risk that accompanies overwhelming front-runner status: the collapse of momentum that would accompany an unexpected loss. He posited that Edwards and Obama could sustain losing Iowa and New Hampshire but worried that Clinton could not; he urged that she spend “substantial” time in Iowa; and he recommended a contingency plan that would haunt the campaign when his own budget team didn’t fulfill it. Noting the difficulty of raising more than $75 million before Iowa, Ickes stressed the need to maintain a $25 million reserve, presumably as insurance against a setback. The campaign wound up raising more than $100 million—but, according to The New York Times, by the time Iowa was lost, $106 million had been spent. The $25 million reserve had vanished, and the campaign was effectively insolvent.

Presented by

Joshua Green is an Atlantic senior editor.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus


Cryotherapy's Dubious Appeal

James Hamblin tries a questionable medical treatment.


Confessions of Moms Around the World

In Europe, mothers get maternity leave, discounted daycare, and flexible working hours.


How Do Trees Know When It's Spring?

The science behind beautiful seasonal blooming

More in Politics

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In