Putsch in Hillaryland

by Michelle Cottle | February 13, 2008

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 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 uberadvisers 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. 

As the leadership regrouped in the wake of Iowa, Hillary loyalists both inside and outside the campaign began contacting the candidate, offering opinions on What Next. “I’ve never seen such a sense of empowerment and excitement,” recalls the Clinton White House veteran. “The Five disappeared, and it was like the fence that had been stopping ideas from flowing disappeared. “ Once that “overarching power structure was gone,” the person adds, the rest of the team “went into overdrive.” So strong was the desire for change that the Granite State miracle, while obviously a godsend, left some staffers deflated as it became clear that the planned overhaul had been derailed. 


THIS IS NOT to suggest that nothing has changed. Despite no heads having rolled, several advisers have been “layered on.” Some are veteran Bill Clinton hands, such as former political director Doug Sosnick and ad man Roy Spence. Others are longtime Hillarylanders who had been unofficially pinch-hitting for the campaign all along, including Melanne Verveer (now helping with faith outreach), Lissa Muscatine (speechwriting), Lisa Caputo (surrogate management), Jen Klein (a policy expert lending an occasional hand with speechwriting), and the formidable Evelyn Lieberman, who may be best remembered as the White House deputy chief of staff who booted a certain intern from the West Wing to the Pentagon. Lieberman is often praised as a “grown-up” with the brains and backbone to go toe to toe with any of the Five. 

Among insiders keeping score, the new additions mean greater accountability for the Five. Spence is expected to affect the fiefdoms of Penn and Grunwald. The addition of communications mavens like Caputo and Kiki McLean (a veteran of the 1992 campaign who was drafted pre-Iowa to help with surrogates) is a recognition that Wolfson’s shop needed reinforcements. Muscatine and Klein, meanwhile, can reinforce Neera Tanden’s department, which handles speechwriting. 

Then there’s Maggie Williams, who refers to herself simply as a “utility player.” But no one on Team Hillary questions that she is far more than that. Having served as chief of staff to both Hillary (in the White House) and Bill (at his foundation), Williams has the trust of both the former president and the aspiring one. Hillarylanders point to her as one of the candidate’s closest confidantes, the person who “sees into Hillary’s soul,” “knows what makes her tick,” and is arguably more of her “peer” than many other members of the inner circle. 

When I asked Williams about her new role, she downplayed it, explaining that she will be doing a little of everything but nothing of note. And, above all, no matter what I may have heard, in no way has she been brought in to manage the team. Her friend Solis Doyle, she said, continues to make all the decisions befitting a campaign manager. As for her broader impact on the office, Williams demurs, “There are so many people over here that I don’t think people have even noticed me.” 

Williams’s history with the Clintons is a fraught one. Of the original Hillaryland crew, arguably no one bore the brunt of the scandals and political storms as fiercely. Twice, Williams became the object of intense public and legal scrutiny: first, when the Whitewater probe raised allegations that she had helped obstruct the investigation into Vince Foster’s suicide by removing files from his office on the night he died; and, again, when the disputed details of her acceptance of a $50,000 political donation from Johnny Chung earned her an invitation to testify before Congress during the Democrats’ 1996 fundraising scandal. For many political watchers, Williams stood as the poster child for the Clintons’ careless disregard of those close to them. At the end of Bill Clinton’s first term, a scarred and exhausted Williams, having racked up $350,000 in legal bills, resigned her White House post and fled to Paris for a couple of years with her new husband. 

Williams admirers see it as a testament to her devotion to Hillary that she has returned to the fray. It is also a testament to how desperately Team Hillary needed a jolt. And, by all accounts, Williams wasted no time in providing one—her self-deprecating protestations notwithstanding. The Wednesday after New Hampshire, Williams moved into the campaign’s Ballston, Virginia, headquarters. Having already reached out to many of the aforementioned Hillarylanders, she promptly began meeting with pre-existing members of every department to assess their problems, ideas, and needs. “It doesn’t get any better than to have somebody of her stature come in and say, ‘What do you need, and what can I do to help you get things done?’” says one Hillarylander now consulting with Williams. Word from inside HQ is that morale has already improved since Williams’s arrival. 


WHATEVER SPECIFIC tasks they tackle, Team Hillary’s latest additions are more broadly intended to open the lines of communication and loosen the grip of the Five. The veteran Hillarylanders in particular—Williams, Verveer, Muscatine, Lieberman—all have direct lines of communication with Hillary, making it that much harder for information to get roadblocked. Unsurprisingly, not everyone is thrilled with the new order. Williams’s appearance on the scene, after all, was widely viewed as a vote of no-confidence in Solis Doyle. And, although Williams stresses that she came aboard at Solis Doyle’s behest, other insiders report that the wounded campaign manager took the arrival of her old boss rather badly. It provoked considerable comment when, for Williams’s first day at HQ, Solis Doyle steered clear of the office, missing key strategy meetings that included the former president himself.

Even so, change proponents remain nervous that, with the sting of Iowa fading, the situation will regress as the Five reassert their primacy. “New Hampshire dulled the sword,” sighs one staffer. And, now, with the Nevada wind in its sails, it seems all the more unlikely that an organization that fears revealing internal disunity like most folks fear bird flu will risk dramatic restructuring. But this is the corner into which the campaign has painted itself. Self-defined as a venture marked by stability and discipline, it can’t very well start hurling bodies overboard without provoking a media feeding frenzy. Barring another Iowa-sized iceberg, staffers weary of the current direction may need to take solace in whatever minor course corrections can be made. Change may make for a snappy campaign slogan. But, as an organizational strategy, it poses something of an existential dilemma for Team Hillary.

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

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