As Donald Trump undertakes his second major campaign shakeup of the summer, it’s worth reflecting on the remarkable stability of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 quest for the presidency. Campaign chair John Podesta is exactly where he was a year ago. So are policy point man Jake Sullivan, communications director Jennifer Palmieri, spokesperson Brian Fallon, and basically everyone else.
The campaign is bigger than it was a year ago, with more field organizers and regional offices and an ever-expanded digital team. But fundamentally the team was put in place back when Joe Biden was seen as Clinton’s main rival for the Democratic nomination.
The difference is stark: Trump appears to be running a pirate ship with endless mutinies on board while Hillary Clinton is running a well-disciplined battleship.
It’s difficult to report on a negative, and the fact that Clinton’s campaign hasn’t been the scene of staff turmoil, semi-public infighting, and damaging leaks is in some ways the definition of a nonstory.
But her 2008 campaign was all of these things, and her success in reinventing herself as the leader of a “no drama” operation in the mold of Barack Obama’s campaign style is a genuinely surprising subplot to a campaign that’s been full of surprises.
Clinton’s 2008 campaign was a leaky mess
Hillary Clinton not only lost the 2008 primary, she did so in a way that raised serious doubts in many people’s mind as to whether she was capable of managing any kind of large-scale organization.
Management problems were visible to even the most casual observers, as in her slow-motion firing of campaign manager Patti Solis Doyle after losing the Iowa caucuses. But beyond difficulty settling on which subordinates she really wanted, Clinton struggled to properly empower her campaign team — frequently circumventing the formal campaign structure to consult with longtime family friends like Sid Blumenthal and Mark Penn, and maintaining a highly ambiguous role for her husband who served as an often counterproductive surrogate on the trail.
The sprawling and unfocused Clinton campaign apparatus was constantly leaking to the press, ensuring that every decision she made was greeted by a chorus of second-guessing.
The campaign was, obviously, not well run — especially in contrast to the disciplined and focused Obama operation.
But when Josh Green sat down to report a post-convention retrospective on the frontrunner’s collapse for the Atlantic he discovered that 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.
When controversy surrounding Clinton’s email management practices as secretary of state began to swirl in the spring of 2015, for many it brought back memories of this deeply flawed Clinton operation.
Jonathan Chait wrote in March of that year about “the larger question of whether Clinton is capable of managing a competent campaign (and thus, in turn, a competent administration).” He reflected that not only did the email imbroglio itself reflect highly questionable staff work, but the content of the some of the Clinton emails seemed to show a continued inability to impose a viable management structure.
“After her appointment as secretary of state, she sought to hire Sidney Blumenthal, one of the longtime loyalists who fed her most paranoid and self-destructive tendencies,” Chait wrote. “The Obama administration blocked this appointment. Clinton went on getting advice from him anyway.”
Clinton’s 2016 team broke with the past
The early development of Clinton’s 2016 team clearly reflected a desire to break with the legacy of mismanagement that plagued her 2008 effort. Most of the key people from that campaign didn’t come back for a second tour of duty.
Instead, the campaign’s senior personnel were either (like Podesta and Palmieri) less tied to her personally than to the Democratic Party institutionally or else (like Sullivan) relative newcomers to Clintonworld who’d done well at the State Department. It was a highly professional operation full of well-regarded political operatives, mostly battle-tested by service in an Obama administration that prided itself on an un-Clintonian absence of drama and scandal.
It seemed like the right way to go, but to many outsiders — okay, to me — it seemed almost too good to be true.
Was Hillary really going to count on this team to see her through thick and thin, or was the official campaign staff going to be rapidly overruled by back-channel communications with Howard Wolfson, Penn, Blumenthal, and whoever else at the first sign of trouble?
And yet she either really has stuck with the core formal campaign team or else has at least imposed enough discipline on herself and her circle that she appears to have done so as far as any political journalist or consumer of political journalism is aware. Clinton hasn’t reinvented herself or become an entirely different person. She’s still secretive, media-averse, and nontransparent in a way that keeps her trapped in a cycle of unusually hostile press coverage.
But this time around she seems to be genuinely executing on the strategy of calm. Clinton’s campaign operates like something resembling a black box. Decisions that can’t possibly have been unanimous are made, and nobody on the outside hears who disagreed or why.
Clinton has been tested — but only a little
One difference, of course, is that in politics it’s a lot easier to look good while you’re winning than while you’re losing. This time around, Clinton has been consistently winning.
We can’t really know whether she would have stayed the course had she fallen behind Bernie Sanders in the delegate count or if Donald Trump had opened up a persistent national polling lead.
We can certainly say that Sanders surprising on the upside didn’t lead to a panic. Indeed, in January, Politico carried a report by Glenn Thrush and Annie Karni hinting that a major staff shakeup was in the offing if Clinton lost New Hampshire, but it never happened even though she got creamed. Whatever doubts Clinton may have expressed to friends who talked to Politico, nothing came of it. And there were no more rumors of staff shakeups even as Sanders proved frustratingly difficult to put away.
Perhaps more significantly, her team stayed the course throughout the July period when Trump largely closed the polling gap and had many liberals alarmed. The Clinton team’s theory was that Trump was benefitting from party unity and that a strong show of support for Clinton from Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren at the Democratic convention would accomplish the same for her — and they stuck with that theory. Probably not every single person in Clinton’s orbit agreed with it, but whoever had doubts kept them to themselves, they executed the strategy, and it worked.
To an extent, of course, old worries about Clinton’s management skills are moot at this point. Put next to Donald Trump, basically anyone would look like a well-disciplined politician capable of running a polished, professional campaign organization. But while elections are a zero-sum game, governance is not. People who remember her 2008 campaign with alarm can take at least some solace in the fact that she seems to have improved on her weaknesses.