WASHINGTON – The 2016 campaign has acquired an unexpected storyline in its early stages: All Madam President’s Men.
As Hillary Clinton begins to staff her nascent presidential campaign, a paradox has emerged. When she ran in 2008, she played down her potential to make history as the first woman to be president, but her campaign was run by a woman and dominated at the top levels by women. This time, Clinton is properly emphasizing her path-breaking role, but she’s relying on the old-boy network – in large part by taking over President Obama’s heavily male campaign apparatus.
Her campaign chairman: John Podesta. Her campaign manager: Robby Mook. Her chief strategist: Joel Benenson. Her pollsters: Benenson, John Anzalone and David Binder. Her top media guy: Jim Margolis. John, Robby, Joel, John, David and Jim join former Obama hands such as Jim, Jeremy and Mitch, who have already been boosting Clinton’s candidacy in the super PAC world.
This is quite a departure from Clinton’s run eight years ago, when a Huffington Post study found that eight of her 14 senior staffers and 12 of her 20 highest-paid staffers were women (including campaign manager Patti Solis Doyle, who was later replaced by Maggie Williams, and chief media strategist Mandy Grunwald). By contrast, only three of Obama’s top 12 staffers were women, and in less important roles.
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This surely wasn’t Clinton’s intent, but her decision to re-brand Obama’s frat house as her own puts out a message quite at odds with her candidacy: that women can’t run a presidential campaign. “Will Hillary ’16 be a ‘White Dude Fest’?” the Daily Beast asked last month.
Clinton world has since done some damage control, letting it be known that Jennifer Palmieri would run the campaign’s communications operation and that Grunwald would have a role. And some of the grumbling about Clinton’s early hires isn’t fair: Huma Abedin, Cheryl Mills and Williams, though they don’t (yet) have official roles, are highly influential members of Clinton’s inner circle. From what I’ve heard, Clinton lieutenants were surprised by the reaction to the early slate of male hires. They say they blundered in putting out the names of several men at once and were not making a fundamental shift from the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pantsuit to the Obama towel snappers.
Even so, this suggests a tone deafness reminiscent of Obama’s handling of the issue. A 2009 basketball game at the White House in which only men played became a symbol of an administration that excluded women from top positions. The common response – that senior adviser Valerie Jarrett has broad influence behind the scenes – is similar to the explanation of the role of women in Clinton’s emerging campaign.
There is one very good reason for Clinton simply to put her name on the door of Obama’s campaign operation: His advisers clearly know how to win elections. Clinton’s 2008 run was famous for its dysfunction and internal feuding.
But it’s just as possible that merging Obama’s advisers with her loyalists will simply produce more squabbling. Many of the officials now poised to work for Clinton spoke of her with undisguised contempt eight years ago. Have they suddenly been converted? Or are they working for Clinton to further their own ambitions and businesses – while privately holding the views that are still being voiced by former top Obama strategist David Axelrod? Axelrod, who is not working for Clinton, has been critical of Clinton in his new book, in which he describes her as “an opportunist” and “not a healing figure” and “too much a part of the system in Washington ever to change it.”
Podesta, a longtime Clinton loyalist who also worked in the Obama White House until last week, will have the job of cracking down on such antics. He’s playing the conventionally male role of being Clinton’s enforcer – the godfather of the Clinton syndicate.
He’ll have the unenviable task of breaking up the knife fights between Obama’s boys (strategist Benenson, pollsters Anzalone and Binder, ad man Margolis) and Clinton’s boys (campaign manager Mook, finance guy Tom Nides and troubleshooter Philippe Reines).
We can’t yet know whether Podesta can keep the calm, or whether one faction or the other will prevail. But this much we already know: The woman who would be the first of her gender to reach the presidency has decided that it takes a whole lot of testosterone to win the White House.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter @Milbank.