The Clinton Camp's Silent Shake-up

Supporters cheer as Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., takes the stage in Manchester, N.H., Tuesday, Jan. 8, 2008, after her Democratic primary win in the state.
This column was written by Michelle Cottle.

The morning after is never pretty. In the wake of defeat in the Iowa caucus, it was a sad and sorry Team Hillary that assembled for a conference call with the candidate. Campaign manager Patti Solis Doyle, in transit back to Washington, was absent. Top strategist Mark Penn was dazed and subdued, waiting for the candidate to come on the line. When she did, Hillary Clinton gave a brief greeting making clear that there would be no navel-gazing and that she was ready to look ahead, according to a participant in the call who was already on the ground in New Hampshire (desperately seeking guidance). Adopting the same ready-for-business tone, message guru Mandy Grunwald tried to spur conversation by asking other top advisers if they wanted to share any thoughts. Nothing. After a pregnant pause, Hillary jumped back in to talk for a few minutes about what she saw as the next step. Again, she was met by silence that stretched out awkwardly until a displeased Hillary snipped, "This has been very helpful talking to myself," and hung up on the group.

Post-Iowa, even the most blindly devoted members of Team Hillary could see that a shake-up of the campaign was in order. The peculiarities of Iowa's caucus system aside, broad structural and tonal problems needed to be addressed. So, as a devastated top leadership struggled to make sense of what had happened, the candidate went to work: Plans were made to bring in new blood; rumors circulated about who among the senior staff would be booted after New Hampshire. But then -- surprise! -- Granite State voters smiled on the Clinton clan once more, delivering Hillary a political resurrection even more stunning than Bill's 1992 comeback. The troops were elated. The generals were relieved. The candidate was glowing and crowing about her found voice. It was a grand and glorious triumph. Except...

The campaign still needed shaking. The percolating trouble brought to the surface in Iowa could not be ignored. But how to accomplish this without damaging the campaign's miraculous new momentum? Especially when much of the discord, say multiple insiders, flowed from decision-makers at the very top of the pyramid.

For all Team Hillary's gifts, it is not known as a happy group. "I've never seen a campaign where everyone feels so bad about themselves," says one campaign staffer, echoing others. This may be somewhat unavoidable: Too much is on the line. Everyone is exhausted. The public scrutiny (damn those scrounging reporters!) is relentless. But compounding these generic stressors, say insiders, has been the fear-inducing, high-handed leadership of the coterie of überadvisers known as "the Five."

High atop Hillary's disciplined, leakproof operation, Solis Doyle, along with Penn, Grunwald, policy chief Neera Tanden, and communications director Howard Wolfson, have kept an iron grip on everything from ideas to access. Characterized by their colleagues -- and even themselves -- as a collection of brilliant but not especially likable political talents, the Five are seen by many insiders as contributing to the candidate's image problem. Even those who profess fondness for individual members admit that none makes a compelling Face of the Campaign. So, when Team Hillary hit its Iowa speed bump, the thoughts of many immediately turned toward shattering the hold of the Five.

In any given situation, the first member of this inner circle to be targeted for abuse is Penn. The reasons are legion: his high profile; his right-of-center politics; his myopic focus on issues; his dismissal of the need for Hillary to get personal and address her likability problem; his unusual dual role as top strategist and pollster; and, of course, his famously rough manner. It's little wonder that all those insiders who didn't care for Penn when the team was riding high were salivating at the idea of prying the campaign from his cold dead hands as things turned south in Iowa. But, despite political watchers crediting Hillary's comeback to her at last getting personal (a move Penn had fought against in favor of more Iron Lady messaging), New Hampshire bought Penn a reprieve.

Instead, the adviser most damaged by Iowa may be the one closest to the candidate: Hillary's longtime scheduler and alter ego, Solis Doyle. Among the most devout members of Hillaryland, Solis Doyle is cheered by supporters as an "unconventional" choice for campaign manager. Detractors are less kind, noting that even some of Hillary's most trusted advisers have long questioned Solis Doyle's readiness for the job. Clinton money man Terry McAuliffe is said to have expressed reservations early on, including in a conversation with the Clintons during the couple's January 2006 trip to the Dominican Republic, according to someone there with the group. (McAuliffe denies this.) Similarly, several weeks before the campaign's official launch, a handful of the most senior Hillarylanders met with the senator to express eleventh-hour doubts about Solis Doyle, says someone Hillary spoke with after the meeting.

No one denies that Solis Doyle's authority stems less from her expertise or political savvy (though defenders insist she has an abundance of both) than from her bond with Hillary. The result, say critics, is a toxic blend of insecurity (about her abilities) and arrogance (about her proximity to the boss). As they tell it, an overwhelmed Solis Doyle has become increasingly temperamental -- playing favorites and abusing her relationship with Hillary to control information flow and enhance her own power. "It's become 'The Patti Show,'" snipes a former member of the Clinton White House who remains close to both Clintons. Solis Doyle is said to allow unaddressed issues to pile up, failing to do things like return calls to surrogates in need of direction or contributors in need of stroking. "People are constantly complaining to the senator and other members of the campaign family that their calls aren't being returned," notes one observer who often hears from such people. At the same time, over the course of her management career, Solis Doyle has developed a reputation for mucking around in the weeds, insisting upon signing off on even low-level decisions, such as where to hold a minor event and whether bagels or donuts should be served. (That's not a hypothetical.) She is brutal to staffers who try to circumvent her with a request, and she is not shy about reminding others of her position: When dispatched to Iowa headquarters in the final month, Solis Doyle demanded that in preparation for her arrival walls be erected around the section of the giant bullpen where she would be working.