Shortly after Hillary Clinton moved into the White House, she gathered a group of top aides known collectively as “Hillaryland” in the correspondence office of the East Wing to deliver a simple message.
“The only way we can do this in this pressure cooker of a place is to help each other. No stabbing each other. No gossiping,” Clinton said, according to one of those aides present, who recalled the story to reporter Michelle Cottle in the summer of 2007, months before the implosion of Clinton’s first presidential campaign led to a cacophony of backstabbing and gossiping.
If Clinton hopes to return to the White House after the 2016 election, she’d better hope the people around her follow that advice better than they did last time. The positioning for jobs on a campaign that doesn’t even exist has already quietly begun. And it has the potential to get ugly.
Every presidential campaign faces difficult and potentially messy staffing choices, as it balances the competing desires to reward loyalty, make room for new ideas, and impose command and control. Simple math dictates that there will be bruised egos: There are too many people who want good jobs, and not nearly enough to go around.
President Obama’s reelection campaign had to disappoint some aides who had helped in 2008 or during his first term in the White House; George W. Bush had to choose between friends from Texas, and those who had worked for his father; Al Gore shunned many Clinton aides to try to build a parallel staff.
But no presidential candidate in recent memory has accumulated as many potential bruised egos as Hillary Clinton. The Clintons are famous for cultivating friends and staff, and after 30-plus years in politics, traveling from the Arkansas governor’s mansion to the White House to the Senate to a presidential campaign to the State Department, there are lots and lots of people who would like — and believe they deserve — a piece of the action. And that doesn’t even include people who worked for Obama or other Democratic campaigns who want in.
“The day she announces, there will be 400 people who think they have a job in the West Wing,” one former Clinton aide said.
This comes with the territory for any presidential campaign, which is generally the hottest game in town for operatives, but especially for a potential candidate expected to have a clear path to the nomination and a good shot at the White House.
It’s not hard to find Democrats in Washington who are already dreaming — idly or not — about what kind of job they’d like in a Clinton campaign: mid-level field staffers who know which states they’d like to work in; senior communications staffers who won’t settle for a lesser job; the longtime loyalists who expect to be rewarded.
“There’s a lot of people with a sense of entitlement out there,” said another Democratic strategist who has worked in the Clinton orbit.
But there’s a widespread desire for a new approach. Already, four senior aides from the last campaign have said publicly that they won’t have a part in a new campaign, including senior strategist Mark Penn, campaign manager Patti Solis Doyle, and communications director Howard Wolfson.
The field of potential candidates most often named for the campaign manager role, profiled recently in U.S. News by David Catanese, includes some new faces. There’s Guy Cecil, the 2008 campaign’s national political and field director, who is now the lauded executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. There’s Robby Mook, the popular young strategist who last year ran the successful Virginia gubernatorial campaign of Terry McAuliffe, Clinton’s 2008 campaign chairman. And there’s Marlon Marshall, a field guru who worked on Clinton’s presidential campaign and now works for the Obama White House.
Outsider possibilities include Stephanie Schriock, who has helped dozens of Democratic women win campaigns across the country as president of EMILY’s List. There is also Ace Smith, who, while not as well-known inside the Beltway, is a low-key legend in California, where he is currently involved in the state’s top three campaigns — the reelection bids of Gov. Jerry Brown, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, and Attorney General Kamala Harris — and where he won the state for Clinton in 2008.
Even if there’s only one top spot, all could play some role in the campaign, as could a slew of others. Veteran field organizer Michael Whouley, Kerry/Edwards adviser Charlie Baker, and former Democratic National Committee Political Director Jill Alper, all of the Dewey Square Group, briefed Clinton last summer on a 2016 run, as Politico’s Maggie Haberman reported, but it’s unclear what role they’d play in a campaign.
Others who would likely be involved at a senior level include the Hillaryland core who have remained loyal and mostly kept their heads down since Clinton’s 1993 pep talk, including Maggie Williams and Cheryl Mills, as well as John Podesta, the Bill Clinton chief of staff who went on to found the Center for American Progress.
Of course, there’s also a whole other universe of Obama aides. For instance, Mitch Stewart and Jeremy Bird, who directed field operations for the 2012 campaign, have already worked closely with Ready for Hillary, the pro-Hillary super PAC that is helping to build a campaign-in-waiting for the former secretary of State.
But no matter how much desire there is for new blood, it be can difficult and costly to push people out, especially for a boss who places such a high value on loyalty.
Philippe Reines, Clinton’s fiercely loyal media gatekeeper, proudly recounted to a profiler in 2011 how he refused to be fired after a misstep on the 2008 campaign. “Patti [Solis Doyle] fired me,” Reines recalled. “I just sort of ignored it, like George Costanza. I was in the office the next day at 7 a.m.”¦ [Clinton] wanted me there.” He remains one of Clinton’s closest aides, currently working to organize her book tour.
His stubbornness was rewarded, since it was Solis Doyle who would soon be fired for real. But according to journalist Joshua Green, various senior officials in the Clinton high command had tried to fire the campaign manager at least three times over two years before she was finally relieved in 2008. Even then, it reportedly took weeks for Clinton to execute the decision.
If an ax needs to be wielded, some expect the task may fall to Chelsea Clinton, who performed a similar role when she took over the Clinton family’s charitable foundation. But the takeover broke some china, leading to a trail of bad press and perhaps the creation of a few frenemies.
Some damage is probably inevitable, but it can be managed. Obama’s 2012 campaign, for instance, had fewer damaging internal leaks than Mitt Romney’s, even though the president almost certainly had more people who felt like they deserved a job than Romney did.
The trick for Clinton in 2016 will be preventing the bruised egos, which are unavoidable, from becoming headaches, backbiting, and leaks.