Hillary’s presidential bid was doomed from the beginning
Monday - 01/05/2017 08:06
Hillary Clinton had been dragging her feet about making her presidential bid official.
In December 2014, Hillary Clinton made up her mind to run for president. But even as her team geared up in early 2015 for the formal announcement in April, the campaign was beset by problems: press leaks, the burgeoning e-mail-server scandal, competing speechwriters, divided staffers, leaderless advisers and a meddling Bill Clinton. Yet the most alarming issue of all, authors Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes reveal in this exclusive excerpt from their new book, “Shattered,” was the candidate’s inability to convey a clear vision or message.
Hillary Clinton had been dragging her feet about making her presidential bid official. She understood that her team needed to start raising funds, hire more staff and begin recruiting volunteers. But she just wasn’t ready.
Her campaign manager, Robby Mook, clean-cut with close-cropped brown hair and lively hazel eyes, was antsy. At one point, there was even discussion of his starring in a campaign-launching video announcing the formation of an “exploratory” committee.
But Hillary was wary of repeating some of the major mistakes of her 2008 bid. She had rushed into her announcement that year to compete with Obama, and she had made it all about her: “I’m in it to win,” she’d said in her campaign opening video. This time, she wanted to show she was listening to voters — talking with them one-on-one or in small groups and in informal settings.
“We’ve come so far under President Obama, but we have so many problems,” she told her advisers. “I want to make sure I’m the right person.”
She’d been off the political battlefield for seven years. Barack Obama had been elected president and the Tea Party had risen in the time since she’d last been on the campaign trail as a candidate. And, if her 2014 book tour had taught her anything, it was that she was rusty as hell.
Obama had been relentlessly superb at telling voters why he was running for president and giving them a window into how he would govern. In preparing to campaign again, she studied Obama’s February 2007 launch speech in Springfield, the one he delivered on the steps of the Old State Capitol — the one that connected him with fellow Illinois state legislator Abraham Lincoln, who had freed the slaves in an act that set the first stone on Obama’s improbable path to the presidency. “She kept harkening back to Obama in Springfield,” said one of Hillary’s top advisers. “She had gone back to read that speech and how important it was for people as a marker of what he would do in the presidency.”
The e-mail story would bedevil her straight through Election Day, robbing her of the ability to create a positive narrative for her candidacy and, as one top adviser put it, returning to her like a cold sore.
Most politicians understand that voters are looking for big, bold principles — easy-to-grasp concepts — and that the details can be filled in to fit them. For Hillary, policy is vision, and she would try to build a platform, program by program, into a blueprint for the country.
This prospect was actually a relief. It was more comfortable for her to sit in four-hour meetings at the conference table with her policy chief — the reedy, whip-smart Jake Sullivan — than to define herself by a small set of guiding principles and shape her policy ideas to fit them.
“This is her deeply held thing: Elections should be about policy,” said one senior Hillary adviser. “There’s a textbook quality to her articulation of things.”
That would make every step of narrative-building its own form of excruciating drudgery. But it would soon seem like a minor nuisance for a campaign that was miserable even before it started.
In early March, The New York Times reported that Hillary had used an e-mail address tied to a personal server at her family home in Chappaqua to conduct official State Department business. The e-mail story would bedevil her straight through Election Day, robbing her of the ability to create a positive narrative for her candidacy and, as one top adviser put it, returning to her like a cold sore. “You never know when it’s going to pop up,” this adviser said. “You think you’re over it and then [it pops] up again.” At the time, it was impossible to know how long the e-mail story would last and just how badly it would damage the campaign.
“Did you have any idea of the depth of this story?” campaign chairman John Podesta asked Mook when it broke.
“Nope,” Mook replied. “We brought up the existence of e-mails in research this summer but were told that everything was taken care of.”
“That’s reassuring,” Podesta shot back. “Yikes.”
“Yeah,” Mook responded. “This is going to be an interesting campaign. I’m in this Zen place now where I’m focusing on the Web site and telling myself this is all background noise!”
At the start, Podesta was seen as a high-level troubleshooter. Short, wiry and in his mid-60s, the marathon-running former top aide to Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama had deep ties to every power center in the Democratic Party. He was supposed to play an adult-in-the-room role on the campaign, coordinating with Bill’s office, the White House, Democratic interest groups and major donors. In theory, Podesta would provide air cover in Clintonworld, lessening the burden on Mook and allowing the campaign manager to focus on executing. But even as Podesta provided guidance to Mook, the two clashed stylistically from the outset.
“John is very intuitive and from the gut,” explained one senior Hillary aide, “and Robby requires a lot of information.” As Podesta would come to learn, Mook guarded that information jealously to maintain his own power.
Podesta was also wary of at least one member of Hillary’s State Crew.
When the e-mail scandal first burst into the open, Philippe Reines, who had a rare direct line to the boss after running her media operations at the State Department and in the Senate, went to war with Jennifer Palmieri, the new communications director for the campaign, over how to respond.
Reines, highly obsessive, ultraloyal to Hillary and possessed of an acid tongue, pointed his finger at Palmieri when Hillary complained that deliberations about the timing of her first public remarks on the e-mail server were leaking to the media.
“This is creating trust problems on her end,” Reines wrote to the campaign’s top officials, establishing for everyone that he had a closer relationship with Hillary than her new communications chief.
almieri fired back to the group, insisting that she wasn’t the source of leaks. “I am telling you right now that if there is any hint of trust issues with me, I am not taking this job,” she wrote.
Podesta replied just to her. “Chill,” he wrote, before taking a shot at Reines. “Remember the source of the e-mail got us in this hot mess.”
There was a certain duality to Hillary’s vast political empire: While it was true that most of the voices inside and outside the campaign had something valuable to contribute, when taken together, they were cacophonous. Rarely did everyone agree on a particular course of action, and often the counsel Hillary got came with the baggage of the adviser’s agenda in maintaining good relations with the candidate or trying to make a rival look bad.
The whole structure of the campaign, with chieftains but no clear leader, was a recipe for the kind of creative — and sometimes explosive — tension that had characterized Bill Clinton’s second term in the White House and Hillary Clinton’s 2008 campaign. In addition, the people close to Clinton didn’t know politics, and the political pros she’d hired didn’t know her very well. Everyone was throwing elbows.
Jon Favreau, the vaunted 33-year-old speechwriter for Barack Obama, was asked to help draft the visionary message she’d give when kicking off her campaign on Roosevelt Island, named after FDR.
But Hillary still struggled with the question of whether she was running for Bill Clinton’s third term, Obama’s third term, or her own first term. “How do you take credit for eight years of Democratic progress but also get that things haven’t gone far enough?” said one aide who wrestled with the conundrum. “She hired all of us to help her figure this out, and I think at the beginning we struggled to do that.”But there was a wrinkle: Favreau wasn’t being asked to write the speech himself. He would just be assisting Dan Schwerin, the campaign’s primary speechwriter, who was also collecting ideas from an array of former Clinton advisers and new bandwagon-hoppers. Even the ringer had to work through a committee. Once Favreau came on board, he was paired with longtime Clinton speechwriter Lissa Muscatine to put some extra punch into the speech, by then scheduled for June 13.
On one eye-rollingly mundane conference call with her speechwriting team early in the process, Hillary talked about what she wanted from the exercise. Though she was speaking with a small group made up mostly of intimates, she sounded like she was addressing a roomful of supporters — inhibited by the concern that whatever she said might be leaked to the press. Her marching orders were to find a slogan and a message. The absence of any talk about her actual vision for the country or the reasons voters should choose her stunned some of the participants. “There was never any question, and no adviser prompted discussion of ‘Why you, why now?’ ” one of them recalled.
For all of her autopsies, Hillary’s management style hadn’t really changed since the 2008 campaign. “Dan Schwerin isn’t the issue,” said one of Hillary’s top aides. “It’s the candidate herself.”
Frustrated with the process and the product, Favreau dropped out about a week before Clinton stepped to the podium. As a parting shot, he delivered a frank assessment of the shortcomings of the operation and the speech. It was coming in way too long, lacked a central rationale for why Hillary was running for president, and with the exception of the biographical details, it could have been delivered by anyone in the Democratic Party.
Around that time, Hillary decided to give Schwerin a direct line to her, without interference from his internal and external critics. “Dan and I are going to finish this speech,” she told her team. “Back off.”
During the last 48 hours before the speech, she and Bill went through draft after draft, shipping edits to Schwerin. She didn’t like the text yet, and neither did Bill, who tried his best to add some poetry — the buzzy Bill Clintonisms that frame an idea. Said one adviser: “It changed from the last time our eyes were on it and when she’s up there, and that only means one thing: WJC, baby.”
But the basic frailty remained what Favreau had pointed out: the failure of the speech to connect Hillary to a cause larger than herself. And no one could change that, not even Bill Clinton.
In the wee hours of the morning, on the day of the kickoff rally, Hillary was still looking at a Frankenstein’s monster of a speech. It wouldn’t get much better for the changes Schwerin tapped out from the tramway platform before closing his laptop and riding to Roosevelt Island. And so, under a blistering sun on a hot Saturday in mid-June, with a glare so bright she struggled to see the speech on the teleprompter in front of her, Hillary Clinton whimpered her way into the election.