Hillary Clinton’s 16-month bid for the presidency transformed her public image from that of a remote, calculating ice queen into a sort of female version of Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell—warm, earthy, tough and flying by the seat of her pantsuit into the occasional gaffe.
But at the heart of the campaign was a candidate who changed little, and whose managerial weaknesses—loyalty, distance, and a damaging indecisiveness—became central features of her campaign, from the January day that she was forced into a premature announcement of her run to the hour that she was forced to withdraw. To a striking degree, the campaign was propelled by outside forces and its own mistakes, rather than by anything resembling a plan.
Clinton’s campaign, and its series of reactive decisions, began in the fall of 2006, when she and her close advisors began discussing when the campaign should begin. Clinton had initially hoped to launch her run in April or May of 2007, campaign chairman Terry McAuliffe told Politico last March.
“She wanted to wait,” said another close aide. “She was like, ‘What’s the hurry? What’s the hurry?’”
But suddenly, there was a hurry. Word reached Clinton’s camp that Illinois Senator Barack Obama—whom they’d been watching warily—had begun to assemble a full campaign more rapidly than they’d expected. On January 16, he launched his campaign through a new medium: an online advertisement emailed to supporters.
Clinton scrambled, and announced her own campaign just four days later, and just the same way.
“They ended up reacting to what Obama was doing,” said Chris Lehane, a political consultant who supported Clinton. “It was a pretty decent launch, but fundamentally it was a reaction.”
The launch set the tone. As the campaign progressed, staffers at times found the candidate removed, or out of the loop, at crucial moments. On February 21, when a former Clinton supporter, David Geffen, attacked her in an interview, her press staff went to war, demanding that Obama apologize for Geffen’s words.
The aggression was later widely seen as a mistake, and Clinton aides are still debating whether the candidate authorized it. One said she initially approved the attack, then tried, too late, to reel it in.
The internal chaos was perennial.
“There was a constant push and pull on what the overall message would be,” said a senior staffer, who recalled the endless delays on everything from Clinton’s speeches to her policies to her very schedule. “A lot of that paralysis went as high as her.”
Many who are close to her blamed the paralysis on Clinton’s lack of faith in her own political judgment, and reliance on her husband in matters political.
“She trusted him more than she trusted herself,” said one advisor.
The campaign’s biggest reactive decision, though, was Clinton’s commitment to the state that would become her Waterloo: Iowa. Mike Henry, a deputy campaign manager who had the ear of her campaign manager at the time, Patti Solis Doyle, penned a memo arguing that Clinton should skip the state, arguing it would likely drain her resources while handing her a defeat.
Almost instantly, the memo leaked to The New York Times, and instead of mulling her commitment to Iowa, Clinton had to react instantly: She committed to competing in Iowa.
It was already too late to catch Obama on the ground in Iowa—he’d begun hiring field staffers there months earlier. And the way the decision was made seemed to affect its implementation. Clinton didn’t spend as much time as her rivals in Iowa until the month of December, when she and her senior staff, sensing the urgency, suddenly moved en masse to the state.
Clinton even broke some of her taboos, bringing her mother and daughter to a frigid Iowa airport hangar to campaign wth her.
But as the campaign reeled into Iowa, putting all its chips on the state, it made few plans for the future. The field director, Guy Cecil, had drawn up three post-Iowa plans, two campaign staffers said, all of which were rejected by the campaign manager, Patti Solis Doyle, who’d earned her position largely by virtue of having worked loyally for Hillary Clinton since the early 1990s.
As a result, when Clinton—as had been predicted by polls—lost Iowa, she and her aides were left with no set plan.
“There was not a plan in place—the plan was: Win Iowa,” said a senior staffer.
Clinton reeled into New Hampshire surrounded by a campaign team that was suddenly sure of defeat. On the road, she bonded with a new advisor, Doug Hattaway, a former spokesman for Al Gore, who was recommended to the campaign—Clinton aides said—in part because he didn’t share the panic that ran through her organization.
By then, staffers had begun to bring Clinton months-old tales of infighting and internal dysfunction—which would dominate media coverage of the campaign over the coming months—and complaints about Solis Doyle.”
“After Iowa, everyone looked at her said, ‘Well, you were winning, so we didn’t feel the need to tell you all these things that were f***ed up,’” said an aide.
Still, Clinton hesitated. She fired Solis Doyle only on February 10, after it was, in retrospect, clearly too late. As Clinton regrouped in February, Obama ran up the score, and by the time she found her feet in March, the delegate race was lost.
That spring, Clinton expanded what had always been an underrated talent: Her retail skill, and the personal warmth that friends had long celebrated. Supporters now say they hope the campaign will help her to carve out a new national role, one that she can take back to the Senate.
“She’s become, like Ted Kennedy, the person who working people, disadvantaged people, gay people, women always look to for support,” said Fred Hochburg, a major Clinton fundraiser.
But Clinton’s focus on the retail campaign meant that, through the final primary in South Dakota, she kept long hours on the road, as a reconfigured and somewhat more harmonious group of advisors continued to run campaign strategy out of her Arlington, Va., headquarters, with factions still rising and falling: Mark Penn’s more aggressive strategy was given credit for victories in Texas and Ohio, but Clinton later softened her attacks on Obama as others warned her that defeat was likely.
Last Tuesday night, the campaign ground to a halt, despite Clinton’s speech that night, which seemed more victory address than concession. Then, on Wednesday, Clinton’s staff and surrogates found themselves waiting, one last time, for Clinton to decide.
“Everyone, even her closest friends, were vaguely mystified by the Tuesday night message,” said a prominent supporter, referring to Clinton’s giving a victory speech the night of her defeat. “Her message kind of stayed the same for the next 24 hours: ‘Just wait.’”
This time, they couldn’t wait: Supporters began to threaten to defect and Clinton, one last time, was forced to act, announcing that she would formally end her campaign later that week.