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.
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.
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.
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
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.
By April 8, Penn seemed to have absorbed the criticism of Clinton as behaving imperiously, as well as the emerging importance of the “change” theme Obama was touting. “Show more of the happy warrior,” he counseled in a memo. “Let’s talk more about a movement for change coming from the people. It’s not a Republican movement or a Democratic movement, but a broad-based movement centered on the idea that America is ready for change.”
He also seemed cognizant of the growing power of the Web, and, straining for hipness, took at a stab at brainstorming a “viral” strategy:
I CAN BE PRESIDENT. This idea has potential for a viral campaign among moms—it is about your sons and your daughters believing that they too can be president. Your success paves the way for them … We are making a video with celebrities to launch this program in a FUN way, with great clips from kids and from celebrities saying what they would do if president.
Once again, he returned to the “Invisible Americans”:
Invisibles—need to use this as a creative vehicle to involve people—This can be a cool button where people appear/disappear. Mandy is working on an early spot that would give this some drama to the idea that it’s the people’s turn to be seen again.
With Obama’s popularity and fund-raising strength becoming clearer by the day, Penn started advising Clinton in areas technically outside his purview. He began what would become a contentious, and ultimately unsuccessful, push to persuade Clinton to hire “a friendly TV face”—a clear jab at Howard Wolfson, the chief spokesman. He also urged Clinton to gather more data about the voters in Iowa and New Hampshire and suggested major “issue speeches” in both states.
Penn wasn’t the only one worried about Iowa. On May 21, the deputy campaign director, Mike Henry, wrote a prescient memo noting the cost and difficulty of running there and proposing that Clinton skip the caucus. The memo was leaked to The New York Times. Henry had estimated (conservatively, as it turned out) that Iowa would require more than $15 million and 75 days of the candidate’s presence, and would not provide any financial or organizational edge. “This effort may bankrupt the campaign and provide little if any political advantage,” he warned. When the story appeared, Clinton felt compelled to publicly recommit, thereby upping Iowa’s significance even further.
Clinton’s staff spent the summer battling itself over how to take on Obama, and battling the media over her record on Iraq and just about everything else. Penn had confronted Obama’s chief strategist, David Axelrod, at a Harvard symposium in March with the charge that since arriving in the Senate, Obama had voted no differently on Iraq than Clinton had. “Are we going to ... tell everyone out there the truth about ... who voted for what, when, or are we going to selectively tell people?” he demanded.
The gambit failed, because Penn was practically the only Clinton adviser eager to push the Iraq issue; the rest believed it was a debate Clinton would lose. The fact that Edwards had apologized for having voted for the war resolution further isolated her. Penn insisted that an apology would be “a sign of weakness,” and Clinton never seriously entertained the notion. But the lingering contrast with Obama did not favor her, particularly among Iowa’s liberal caucus-goers, and the attacks she did launch only highlighted this fundamental disparity.
The internal discord over whether to attack Obama led some of her own staff to spin reporters to try to downplay the significance of her criticisms. The result for Clinton was the worst of both worlds: the conflicting message exacerbated her reputation for negativity without affording her whatever benefits a sustained attack might have yielded.
Clinton’s epic and costly battles with the press—and her husband’s, as well—had their genesis in this incoherence. About the only thing the campaign’s warring factions did agree on was that the press ought to be criticizing Obama more severely. The more the Clinton team became paralyzed by conflict, the more it was forced to rely on the press to write negative stories that would weaken Obama—to, in effect, perform the very function it was unable to do for itself. This led the campaign to aggressively pressure reporters throughout 2007 and launch the outright attacks against the press that backfired once the primaries began.
Inside the campaign, Penn was losing the debate. His insistence that Obama’s mounting attacks called for an expanded press operation was seen as an attempt to weaken his rivals, and he was punished with leaks suggesting that Clinton might dump him as chief strategist. Meanwhile, Clinton had nervously accepted the advice from her Iowa campaign staff that negative attacks would backfire.
On December 1, Clinton and her husband attended a private dinner with the influential Des Moines Register editorial board. Seated at opposite ends of a long table, they were stunned to hear journalists praise the skill and efficiency of the Obama and Edwards campaigns and question why Clinton’s own operation was so passive.
On the next morning’s staff conference call, Clinton exploded, demanding to know why the campaign wasn’t on the attack. Solis Doyle was put on a plane to Iowa the next day to oversee the closing weeks. Within hours of the call, the panicked staff produced a blistering attack on Obama for what it characterized as evidence of his overweening lust for power: he had written a kindergarten essay titled “I Want to Become President.” The campaign was mocked for weeks.
One story line that has featured prominently in the postmortems is Harold Ickes’s attempts to alert the campaign to the importance of the party’s complicated system of allotting delegates—a system that Obama’s campaign cleverly exploited, by focusing on delegate-rich caucus states. Ickes wrote a series of memos, fatefully ignored, that drew attention to this matter. Nothing I was privy to suggests that anyone else gave it more than passing attention until just before Iowa (though as a cost-saving measure, the budget team halted polling in many of the caucus states they expected Obama to win). Then, on December 22—just 12 days before Iowa—Ickes tried again, in a memo that seems to be introducing the subject of delegates for the first time:
Assuming that after Iowa and New Hampshire the presidential nominating contest narrows to two competitive candidates who remain locked in a highly contested electionthrough 5 February, the focus of the campaign and press will shift to the delegate count. The dedication of resources (including candidate time) should be influenced, in part, by factors that will afford HRC an advantage in acquiring more delegates compared to her opponent(s).
The advice finally registered—but it was too late.
In the hours after she finished third in Iowa, on January 3, Clinton seized control of her campaign, even as her advisers continued fighting about whether to go negative. The next morning’s conference call began with awkward silence, and then Penn recapped the damage and mumbled something about how badly they’d been hurt by young voters.
Mustering enthusiasm, Clinton declared that the campaign was mistaken not to have competed harder for the youth vote and that—overruling her New Hampshire staff—she would take questions at town-hall meetings designed to draw comparative,” but not negative, contrasts with Obama. Hearing little response, Clinton began to grow angry, according to a participant’s notes. She complained of being outmaneuvered in Iowa and being painted as the establishment candidate. The race, she insisted, now had “three front-runners.” More silence ensued. “This has been a very instructive call, talking to myself,” she snapped, and hung up.
In the days leading up to her stunning New Hampshire comeback, on January 8, Clinton’s retail politicking, at last on full display, seemed to make the most difference. But any hope of renewal was short-lived. Not long after New Hampshire, in a senior-staff meeting that both Clintons attended at the campaign’s Arlington headquarters, Ickes announced to his stunned colleagues, “The cupboard is empty.” The campaign had burned through its money just getting past Iowa. And the news got worse: despite spending $100 million, it had somehow failed to establish ground operations in all but a handful of upcoming states. Now, urgently needing them, it lacked the money.
Clinton ended up agreeing to lend the campaign $5 million. But even this would enable it to compete in only some of the February 5 states. Though under heavy pressure to fire her campaign manager and chief strategist, Clinton wouldn’t drop the ax. She layered on still more advisers, including her former White House chief of staff, Maggie Williams, who settled uncomfortably alongside Solis Doyle.
On January 21, Guy Cecil, a veteran operative who had been brought aboard in September, circulated a memo laying out the game plan for February 5. Now fully alive to the challenge ahead, Cecil split the map into three categories: Obama base states, battleground states, and Clinton base states (of which there were four—Arkansas, California, New Jersey, and New York).
To maximize delegates cheaply, Cecil fell back on trying to drive up voter turnout in Clinton states. He also seems to have been the first person to spot the alarming possibility that blowout wins in weak Clinton districts could yield huge delegate gains for Obama. But here he was essentially flying blind. The Clinton campaign had long since ceased polling in unfriendly states, and now had to make do with guesswork. Cecil estimated that Clinton could net 58 delegates on February 5, significantly expanding her narrow lead.
On February 4, Ickes circulated a “framework” of the post–Super Tuesday strategy, stoically noting that “given the lack of polling information for post 5 Feb states, these projections are based on best estimates.” The campaign was collectively holding its breath. Ickes wrote:
Assuming HRC’s lead in super delegates holds and continue [sic] to increase even slowly, she will continue to lead BO in total delegates at every step. We are in for a real fight, but assuming she at least achieves the projections for Tuesday and given some breaks, it is a fight that she can win.
On Super Tuesday, however, Clinton fell well short of projections, and according to NBC News, Obama finished the day having netted about 10 delegates and narrowed the gap. The slow-motion collapse of Clinton’s candidacy began to accelerate.
On February 10, Clinton finally fired Solis Doyle and moved Williams in—but did not heed calls to fire Penn, enraging Solis Doyle’s many loyalists. At this crucial point, long-simmering feuds burst into the open. On February 11, Williams’s first day on the job, Phil Singer, Wolfson’s deputy and a man notorious for his tirades at reporters, blew up in Wolfson’s office and screamed obscenities at his boss before throwing open the door to direct his ire at the campaign’s policy director, Neera Tanden, an ally of Solis Doyle. “Fuck you and the whole fucking cabal!” he shouted, according to several Clinton staffers. In the end, he climbed onto a chair and screamed at the entire staff before storming out.
The same day, Philip Bennett, the managing editor of The Washington Post, sent Williams a letter formally complaining that Singer had maligned one of his reporters by spreading unfounded rumors about her (apparently in retaliation for an accurate—and prescient—story that had noted, long before anyone else, Clinton’s tendency to burn through money). Fearing for his deputy’s job, Wolfson intercepted the letter, though Bennett eventually got a copy to Williams. Singer disappeared and was presumed fired. But a week later, he made amends and rejoined the campaign. “When the house is on fire, it’s better to have a psychotic fireman than no fireman at all,” Wolfson explained to a colleague.
As the days wore on, morale deteriorated. In state after state, the staff watched helplessly as huge leads dwindled to nothing in the face of Obama’s massive outlays. Toward the end of a February 21 debate, amid what would prove to be a string of 12 straight losses, Clinton spoke of the race wistfully, as though resigned to losing. The press took this as a signal that the end was near—not at all what she meant.
On the call two days later, the candidate was furious, this time at a press corps she accused of purposely misreading her designs in an effort to force her from the race. “They’re taking out their revenge on Bill,” she fumed, according to a participant’s notes. Later that day at a press conference, Clinton left no doubts about her purpose, lighting into Obama. Penn’s star was ascendant.
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.
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.