Over-Billed

By

Two days after the New Hampshire primary, John Kerry climbed onto a dais in Charleston, South Carolina, and endorsed Barack Obama. “We need...leaders who look out at America and see not an electorate to be sliced and diced and pitted against each other, but citizens who want to do great things together,” Kerry said. At first, it sounded like a shot at George Bush and Karl Rove. But, the longer he went on, the more Kerry seemed to have another polarizing duo in mind--Bill and Hillary Clinton. “Sometimes the hardest thing for the established political world to do is make a clean break with the past,” Kerry added.

Kerry is hardly the only Washington fixture to make a clean break with the Clintons of late. Around the same time, Obama won over Senators Pat Leahy, Tim Johnson, Ben Nelson, and Claire McCaskill. Senator Kent Conrad endorsed him in December, while former majority leader Tom Daschle signed on last February. 

You might think self-interest would have kept these insiders in the Clinton fold, or at least assured their neutrality. It is, after all, highly possible that they’ll be working alongside a second Clinton administration next January. But, for people like Kerry and Daschle and especially their former advisers, the Clintons’ continued presence at the center of Democratic politics has sometimes chafed over the last eight years. “I think there was a feeling [within Daschle’s inner circle] that it was time to share power,” says a former top Daschle aide. One of the ways they’ve expressed this feeling is by embracing the Clintons’ chief rival. 

IT MAY NOT be apparent beyond the Beltway, but the Clintons kept their grip on Democratic Washington long after leaving the White House. Outside of Hillary’s Senate office, Clinton spear-catcher Terry McAuliffe provided a friendly ear as Democratic National Committee chairman until 2005. Other Clintonites kept a watchful eye on the party’s ideas infrastructure (former Clinton chief of staff John Podesta heads up the influential Center for American Progress) and its money spigots (Clinton loyalist Harold Ickes controlled the purse strings at the Soros-funded America Coming Together through the 2004 election). If you’ve looked for a job in the Democrats’ government-in-exile lately, chances are you’ve hit up a Clintonite. 

It’s easy to see how this arrangement could lead to frustration, especially if your history with the Clintons dates back to the 1990s. Daschle, in particular, is a telling example. Though he personally enjoyed a collegial relationship with the Clinton White House, the interests of a congressional leader and a president inevitably diverge. One Daschle aide recalls showing up to a Rose Garden ceremony with several colleagues only to discover they hadn’t made the guest list. By the time they got in the door, many of the seats had been claimed by the staffs of Republican chairmen, whom the Clintons had invited. “We got a little pissed off about always being triangulated around,” says the aide. 

Such stories may sound petty, but “being triangulated around” had real consequences. To this day, many former Daschle aides, if not the senator himself, blame their boss’s 2004 loss on the votes he cast in the name of party unity, while the president was free to bob and weave his way to reelection. (Likewise, it may be telling that a former Dick Gephardt aide, David Plouffe, manages Obama’s campaign.) 

Though Hillary kept her head down when she arrived in the Senate--avoiding glitzy TV appearances and lingering at committee hearings until the bitter end-- she never really improved this relationship. “There was always a sense that Hillary was in the Senate to further Hillary’s goals,” recalls another former Daschle staffer, noting how rarely Clinton pitched in on team efforts. One reason for this: She didn’t need the press attention that draws novice senators to thorny-but-necessary tasks. 

Obama would take the opposite tack as a freshman. When Democrats began agitating for lobbying reform in 2006, it was Obama who agreed to be their lead negotiator with Republicans. In a chamber as sensitive to the flow of cash as the Senate, stepping between lobbyists and your colleagues is a bit like cutting off your frat brothers when they’ve had too much to drink: Everyone concedes it must be done, but nobody is lining up to do it. But Obama co- authored several of the provisions, like restrictions on lobbyistfunded meals, that eventually became law. “Could you go to Hillary? Sure,” said a Senate aide when I asked why Clinton wasn’t enlisted. “But we would probably think that, if she wants to get involved in something, she’s going to get involved in something [herself].” 

AGAINST THIS BACKDROP, it’s no surprise that many Daschle aides were open to a non-Clinton figure as the future of the party. When Daschle lost in 2004, it was Obama who inherited Pete Rouse, his mythic chief of staff. Later, when word spread that Daschle operative Steve Hildebrand had accompanied Obama on an early trip to Iowa, the Daschle diaspora took notice. Obama hired Hildebrand in late 2006, and, before long, Daschle alumni were popping up throughout the campaign. 

In turn, the Daschle-Rouse-Hildebrand axis helped pry loose several Obama colleagues. Hildebrand had managed a close reelection campaign for South Dakota’s Tim Johnson, who endorsed Obama the day before Kerry did. Daschle himself has long been close to Kent Conrad, the North Dakota senator, who came aboard in late December. (Though Obama himself considers Conrad a mentor.) For their part, senators like Nelson, a conservative Nebraska Democrat, were so far off Hillaryland’s radar screen that they made for easy marks. “She didn’t have a lot of time for people like Ben Nelson,” says another former Daschle aide. “What can Ben Nelson do for Hillary Clinton?” 

But it’s Kerry who provides the most vivid example of elite Washington’s flight to Obama. Prior to his presidential campaign, Kerry had long thought of himself as an anti-establishment figure. “Late in 2002, early ‘03, he was the cool guy, married to Teresa Heinz, who did environmental stuff and had protested the [Vietnam] war,” says Andrei Cherny, a former Kerry aide. Many of his early supporters, particularly top fund-raisers, had also stood apart from the Clinton establishment. Some, like Silicon Valley super-lawyer John Roos, had backed Bill Bradley. Others, like venture capitalist Mark Gorenberg, had only begun fund-raising actively toward the end of the Clinton era. 

After he clinched the nomination, Kerry was keen to enlist the former president’s help. (He believed Al Gore had made a mistake by distancing himself from Clinton in 2000.) But the decision created headaches. “There was never a sense that [the Clintons] were less than one hundred percent committed to winning,” says one longtime Kerry friend. “But there was a sense that, at key moments, their legacy or their role in the party was paramount.” Not long after the GOP convention, for example, Kerry talked strategy with a bedridden Clinton. Kerry aides fumed when, a day and a half later, the ostensibly private conversation made the front page of The New York Times, bestowing a Yoda-like glow on Clinton while painting Kerry as a cipher. 

For many in Kerry’s orbit, the final straw came in 2006, after the senator mangled a joke about lousy students getting “stuck in Iraq.” (Kerry had intended to needle Bush for “getting us stuck in a war in Iraq.”) The fallout helped dash Kerry’s hopes of another White House run. In the minds of his supporters, that’s precisely what Hillary Clinton intended when she piled on two days later, calling the comment “inappropriate.” “A lot of us were rip-shit pissed off at Hillary for putting her boot on his neck,” says one dedicated fund-raiser. Once Kerry officially bowed out, several of his most loyal money men decamped for team Obama. 

None of which is to say Obama’s elite support is entirely an anti-Clinton phenomenon. According to the longtime friend, Kerry feels like he and Obama are “programmed from the same foreign policy DNA.” Daschle aides say their former boss was taken with Obama’s conciliatory style and his red-state appeal, both of which the former senator prided himself on. And just about every former Kerry and Daschle aide I spoke to used the word “movement” to describe Obama’s allure. On the other hand, if by movement these people mean an emotionally charged, semi-spontaneous act of resistance to the current order--well, then maybe the two things are really one and the same.

This article appeared in the February 13, 2008 issue of the magazine.

 

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