When campaigns fight with themselves (a brief history)

September 17, 2012

There's nothing new under the sun, and that goes double for infighting in presidential campaigns.

A new Politico report Sunday night detailed some discord in the campaign of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney — just four years, we should note, after infighting was supposed to have plagued his 2008 GOP primary campaign.


But really, this is pretty par-for-the-course for a campaign that is going through a rough patch.

In fact, recent history is replete with stories of campaign infighting. The campaigns of Romney, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Hillary Clinton all dealt with significant discord in 2008 — with Clinton's being perhaps the most notable example to date.

In 2004, Sen. John Kerry's (D-Mass.) campaign battled with itself over its response (or lack thereof) to the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth and over the leadership of campaign manager Bob Shrum. And in 2000, Al Gore's campaign had many of the same problems and at one point even moved its whole operation from Washington.

Here's a quick look back at some of the best recent examples:

In 2008, Clinton's primary campaign was overrun by infighting, with much of the staff pitted against chief strategist Mark Penn and divided by an all-consuming difference of opinion over how the campaign would present its candidate — a tough, no-nonsense survivor of political attacks or a sympathetic figure who played up her status as potentially the first female president.

From Vanity Fair's exhaustive post-mortem, aptly titled "Hillaryland at war":

 It was impossible to find anyone who could lay out the hierarchy of Hillary’s campaign. Almost everybody had veto power, but no one could initiate. The group was about as effective as the U.N. Security Council. After Super Tuesday and Obama’s remarkable run of February victories, it was clear their arrogantly defended strategies had failed. They became consumed with trading personal invective, hurling expletives, and trashing one another in print.

 

Penn and (senior adviser Harold) Ickes especially hated each other. Penn was a protégé of the most poisonous character in the Clinton White House, pollster Dick Morris. Leon Panetta, who had battled against Morris’s morally empty advice in the ’96 campaign, compared Penn to Karl Rove and saw Hillary’s dependence on Penn as an ominous sign. “Morris had no lines between right and wrong,” says Panetta. “There are moments when [the Clintons] want to hear from the dark side because that may be the only way to win. … Losing is not part of their vocabulary. They know no limits when it comes to the energy and tactics they will use — no matter how distasteful.”

...

Penn seemed only too eager to blame his nemeses for everything. A campaign insider claims he said, “Who had the desk next to (campaign manager) Patti (Solis Doyle) since the beginning of this campaign? Ickes. Who ran the budget? Ickes. Who decided what resources went into organization and what states got played in? Ickes. He and Patti and (deputy campaign manager) Mike (Henry).”

Ickes couldn’t contain his rage, telling me, “Penn was the chief strategist. … Following our loss, he now disclaims responsibility for anything and everything that went wrong and acts as if he were barely involved, which is especially galling from someone who made [nearly] $20 million from the campaign.”

In early February 2008, Solis Doyle stepped down as campaign manager and was replaced by Maggie Williams. By April, when it was clear that President Obama was on a path for victory, Penn left the campaign. (At the time, it was reported that he met with representatives of the Colombian government looking to promote a free trade agreement that Hillary Clinton opposed.)

Likewise, McCain's campaign in mid-2008 dealt with stories about infighting, with a similar too-many-cooks-in-the-kitchen theme:

Out of his hearing, Mr. McCain is called the White Tornado by some people who have worked for him over the years. Throughout his presidential campaign, he has been the overseer of a kingdom of dissenting camps, unclear lines of command and an unsettled atmosphere that keeps aides constantly on edge.

 

Even now, after a shake-up that aides said had brought an unusual degree of order to Mr. McCain’s disorderly world in the last month, two of his pollsters are at odds over parts of the campaign’s message, while past and current aides have been trading snippy exchanges debating the wisdom of attack advertisements he has aimed at Mr. Obama.

Around this time, campaign manager Rick Davis took on a reduced role while Steve Schmidt was installed as McCain's third campaign manager, and he immediately set about insulating McCain from having too many voice around him.

The Post wrote at the time:

The changes are an acknowledgment that the structure created in the weeks after McCain wrapped up the nomination has not served him well. One element that will undergo major changes is the layer of regional campaign managers, who were given significant autonomy over campaign activities in their assigned geographic areas.

Campaign officials have since concluded that the move was a mistake, and Schmidt is now searching for a national political director to oversee and coordinate the political operation.

By the end of the campaign, of course, Sarah Palin's selection as McCain's vice presidential pick led a whole new brand of discord, with Palin supporters feuding with the campaign's leadership and venting anonymously to the media.

In 2000, Al Gore's presidential campaign had many of the same problems, though they were largely relegated to the primary season.

In the face of sluggish fundraising and a tough primary with then-Sen. Bill Bradley (D-N.J.), Gore made the extraordinary move of transplanting his campaign headquarters from Washington to his home state of Tennessee.

From September 1999 in The Post:

 The dramatic upheaval follows months of increasingly weak polls, internal strife and financial woes for Gore — money problems that came into sharp focus late yesterday as Gore's advisers conceded they raised an anemic $6.5 million and spent almost every penny raised in the third quarter.

...

Since spring, the vice president has struggled to find the right team, message and style to woo the voters. His top-heavy operation, beset by infighting and in a town that feeds on political intrigue, has prompted President Clinton to worry in recent months about Gore's being trapped in the Washington "echo chamber."

At one point, Bill Clinton even irked the campaign by granting an interview with the New York Times in which he defended his vice president's struggling campaign. Around that same time, Gore installed Tony Coelho as his new campaign chairman. Soon, of course, there were gripes that Coelho was trying to consolidate control around himself.

As the clips above illustrate, infighting is a pretty regular occurrence on the campaign trail. There are always going to be disagreements over how to run the campaign, and when the overall effort struggles, those disagreements become more heated and sometimes leak to the press.

What we should also note, though, is that all of the examples listed above, none of these campaigns wound up being successful.

(Even successful presidential campaigns have seen their share of staff shakeups, but this kind of public infighting is generally reserved for campaigns that are losing hope and for aides that are looking for someone to blame.)

In reality, the sniping inside the Romney campaign could be more an indication of the campaign's overall struggles rather than some indication that this campaign is more or less prone to infighting than its predecessors.

Which may not be new, but it's not good either.

Aaron Blake covers national politics and writes regularly for The Fix, the Post’s top political blog.
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