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.
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March–April 2008: Penn Takes Command

Penn believed that white men (“beer drinkers”) had been up for grabs since Edwards had bowed out, on January 30; one basis for his disagreement with colleagues who wanted to showcase Clinton’s softer side was that doing so would not attract white men. “The idea,” he wrote, “that this can be won all on smiles, emotions, and empathy is simply wrong.”

Penn created his infamous “3 a.m.” ad, questioning Obama’s readiness for a crisis, with these voters in mind. Before presenting the ad to the senior staff, he secured Hillary Clinton’s approval to broadcast it. But even Clinton’s newfound willingness to attack did not prevent Penn from being challenged. His detractors had two rationales: that attacks would look desperate and drive up Clinton’s already lofty “unfavorable” ratings; and that if she continued down this path she would irreparably damage her reputation and possibly that of her party’s nominee.

In the days leading up to Ohio and Texas, the campaign kept arguing over whether to air the ad. With the deadline looming, Bill Clinton, speaking from a cell phone as his plane sat on a runway, led a conference call on Thursday, February 28, in which he had both sides present their case. As his plane was about to lift off, it was Bill Clinton—not Hillary—who issued the decisive order: “Let’s go with it.”

On March 4, Clinton carried the primaries in Ohio and Texas, and vowed to remain on the offensive. She chided her reluctant advisers: “A general alone cannot assault a hill.” In a triumphant memo afterward, Penn brandished his sword: “We have begun, but must now in earnest, show that their image of Obama Camelot is simply nothing but campaign pitter-patter.”

The celebration was dampened, however, by a front-page headline in The Washington Post: “Even in Victory, Clinton Team Is Battling Itself.” Rather than spotlighting the resurgent candidate, the March 6 piece examined “the battle on the inside”—particularly the towering contempt for Penn.

At nine o’clock that morning, Robert Barnett, the eminent Washington attorney prized by the Clintons for his years of wisdom and discretion, finally blew his top and fired off an e-mail to Hillary Clinton and her senior staff:

STOP IT!!!! I have help [sic] my tongue for weeks. After this morning’s WP story, no longer. This makes me sick. This circularfiring squad that is occurring is unattractive, unprofessional, unconscionable, and unacceptable … It must stop.

Yet the clashes and paralysis continued. In the aftermath of Obama’s historic race speech on March 18, Sheila Jackson Lee, a Texas congresswoman, urged Clinton to deliver a speech of her own on gender. Clinton appeared very much to want to do this, and solicited the advice of her staff, which characteristically split. The campaign went back and forth for weeks. Opponents argued that her oratory couldn’t possibly match Obama’s, and proponents countered that she would get credit simply for trying, inspire legions of women to her cause, and highlight an issue that everyone in the campaign fiercely believed was hurting them—sexism. But Clinton never made a decision, and seemed troubled by the concern of Ann Lewis, perhaps her most venerable feminist adviser, who opposed such a speech for fear that it would equate sexism with racism—another contrast with Obama that Clinton feared she would lose.

Even in the midst of chaos, Penn was at last where he wanted to be: steering the campaign. After the death-defying wins in Texas and Ohio, he delivered a strategy update on March 30 charting Clinton’s “Path to Victory”:

1. Win PA, WV, KY, PR
      2. Perform well in OR, NC, SD, MONT, GUAM
      3. Pick up 25 Delegates
      4. Resolve or Revote MI, FL to close at least 30 Delegates including Supers
      5. Be ahead in Popular Vote inc. MI and FL
      6. Be ahead in delegates from primaries (his lead will be entirely from caucuses)
      7. Be ahead of him against McCain (why we will contrast with McCain on ec, Iraq)
      8. Increase concern about what he would do to Congressional Races (trying test now in white rural districts)
      9. Will have won every big state and have coalition of Catholics, working class, Latinos, and women—the key electorates.
      10. Super-delegates must see Obama as a doomsday scenario to vote en masse for HRC

Then he shifted gears and went after his colleagues within the campaign:

Does anyone believe it is possible to win the nomination without, over these two months, raising all these issues on him? A “nice” campaign that wins the states along [sic] that can be won—will that be enough or do serious issues have to be raised about him?
      If you believe that serious issues need to be raised then we have to raise them without continual hesitation and we should be pushing the envelope. Won’t a single tape of [the Reverend Jeremiah] Wright going off on America with Obama sitting there be a game ender?
      Many people (Peter Hart excluded) believe under the surface that 20 years sitting there with Goddamn America would make him unelectable by itself.

Four days later, Penn’s momentum collided with The Wall Street Journal, when the paper exposed his lobbying activity on behalf of a free-trade agreement with Colombia that Clinton opposed. He was stripped of the “chief strategist” title, though he maintained an advisory role, and Geoff Garin, a veteran Democratic operative, replaced him at the helm of the campaign.

The absence of clear lines of authority meant that another lurking problem was ignored for too long. The Democratic National Committee had disallowed the results from Florida and Michigan, to punish the states for holding primaries earlier than its rules permitted. Though Ickes had monitored the developments throughout 2007, the status of the delegates from the two states did not become vitally important until Clinton fell behind. Because she had won both states (even though it was clear that they were technically meaningless “beauty contests”), her campaign made the assumption, routinely reflected in e-mails and memos from top strategists, that it would be able to formalize her claim to the delegates.

On February 25, a pair of Clinton advisers began sending a series of increasingly urgent memos, which were given to me by a recipient sympathetic to Solis Doyle as a way of illustrating that strategic mistakes continued even after her dismissal. The first memo, from Philippe Reines and Andrew Shapiro, worried that Clinton’s anticipated wins in Texas and Ohio on March 4 would not meaningfully narrow Obama’s delegate lead—a fact sure to sap momentum once the initial excitement of victory passed. They proposed that Clinton, from a position of strength immediately after her wins, challenge Obama to accept Michigan and Florida revotes. Such a move “preempts Obama’s reiteration on March 5th that they are still up 100 plus delegates and that we can’t win,” they noted. “The press will love the rematch, like Rocky II.”

On March 4, as Ohio and Texas were voting, the advisers, who now included senior strategist Doug Hattaway, circulated another memo formalizing what they now called the “Florigan Plan.” Absent a revote, the memo warned, “we cannot secure enough delegates to win; we cannot overtake him; the math simply doesn’t work … it is imperative that we provide … a clear and tenable answer to the single most important question we face.” But March 5 passed without any action. On March 10, sensing that the opportunity to reclaim the Florigan delegates had already vanished, the group again urged pressure for a revote. On the next day’s call, Clinton asked for an update on Florida and Michigan. Exasperated by the meager response, she erupted once again and insisted that something be done. A week later, Clinton made an impromptu visit to Detroit to publicly highlight the lack of a resolution.

The campaign did not launch an organized offensive until nine weeks later, on May 21. But by then Clinton was operating from a position of weakness. Rather than greeting it as Rocky II, the press covered her bid for a revote as a “last-gasp strategy,” which soon failed.

May 2008: Last Chance

Geoff Garin, the new leader, soon encountered the old problems. Obama remained the front-runner, and Clinton’s communications staff disagreed on how to turn back the tide of tough stories. Garin was appalled at the open feuding and leaking. “I don’t mean to be an asshole,” he wrote in an e-mail to the senior staff. “But … Senator Clinton has given Howard Wolfson both the responsibility and the authority to make final decisions about how this campaign delivers its message.” On the strategic front, Garin sided with the coalition opposed to Penn’s call to confront Obama, and he had numbers to support his reasoning. Polls showed that a majority of voters now distrusted Clinton.

Though Clinton carried Pennsylvania on April 22, aided by Obama’s “bitter” comment, Garin believed that a positive strategy could rebuild trust in her in North Carolina and Indiana, the next big hurdles. The campaign was deeply in debt, but Garin convinced Clinton that if she committed several million dollars to his strategy, they would win Indiana, pull to within single digits in North Carolina, and live to fight on. In an April 25 e-mail outlining his approach, which would be very different from Penn’s, he wrote:

We are definitely moving in the right direction, and I believe we are on track to narrow this to single digits—especially if we fund a competitive effort in [North Carolina].
      Our white targets are slightly more male than female, and definitely skew under age 50 … About 20% of all whites are still moveable to Clinton.

But on May 6, the narrowness of Clinton’s victory in Indiana and her blowout loss in North Carolina effectively ended the race. She finished out the primary calendar, with Garin gently steering the campaign into port on June 3.

That evening, as she delivered the non-concession speech that awkwardly preceded the real one several days later, Clinton seemed to finally embrace the ideas of her erstwhile chief strategist (who was, even in his reduced role, preparing one final attempt to win the argument, this time in a formal presentation for the superdelegates). Her campaign at an end, Clinton seemed to reach all the way back to the beginning, to Penn’s “Invisible Americans”:

I want to turn this economy around. I want health care for every American. I want every child to live up to his or her God-given potential, and I want the nearly 18 million Americans who voted for me to be respected, to be heard, and no longer to be invisible.
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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