Howard Wolfson, the 2008 communications director for Hillary Rodham Clinton, has said he will not return for a 2016 presidential campaign. Neither, for that matter, will Neera Tanden, the campaign’s policy director. Ditto for Mark Penn, the chief strategist, and Patti Solis Doyle, the embattled campaign manager.
As core members of a dysfunctional “Team of Rivals,” these top advisers were seared, scattered and, to different degrees, forged by the 2008 experience. Haunted by the failures in management and messaging, they have worked hard to get over their shattered White House dreams and rejection by a Democratic base enamored with Barack Obama. They express their requisite hope that Clinton will run and win, but also their lack of interest in jumping back in.
Clinton, who declined to be interviewed, moved on more quickly than many of her senior staff by going to work for Obama as secretary of state. She refuses to acknowledge the 2016 speculation but has privately suggested that the obstacles to running aren’t exactly insurmountable. “She did tell me once that she was really thinking about Chelsea and [son-in-law] Marc,” said Susie Tompkins Buell, a Democratic donor and friend of Clinton, “and how she didn’t want to disrupt their lives.”
The 2008 campaign did precisely that to many of Hillaryland’s denizens. It was a campaign structure that pitted an “A team” of advisers against one another and created a climate of anxiety as a “B team” of potential outside replacements from the Clintons’ White House and Senate orbits hovered.
Now, as Clinton repositions on issues such as gay marriage, reconnects with donors and crowds out potential rivals, the nearly two dozen veterans interviewed for this article debated who among them could or would come back. That spotlights an overlooked consideration for Clinton: With the former core team apparently intent on staying out, can Clinton rebuild an inner circle capable of running and winning a presidential campaign? Will she reach into the tightknit Obama machine for talent, again borrow from her husband’s brain trust or elevate the understudies?
Philippe Reines, one of those former Senate loyalists who followed her to the State Department and is now a paid spokesman for the former first lady, dismissed speculation about a 2016 run even as he pronounced that Clinton “would be a great president and I would want to help her do that.” He also contacted veterans of the ’08 campaign and urged them to avoid anonymous sniping that would reflect poorly on Clinton, according to several people who’ve been on the receiving end and who took the request as a warning not to criticize her. (Reines denied that he policed anyone’s conversations and insisted that he only encouraged former staffers to put their names to any comments.)
He and other boosters sought to put the lingering leadership concerns to rest by pointing to Clinton’s relatively smooth tenure as secretary of state. But even he acknowledged that running an existing bureaucracy is not analogous to building a billion-dollar campaign. That leaves Clinton with only one model as a reference point if she runs for president in 2016.
“I can go into the plus sides of the theory of the Team of Rivals and the downsides of the theory of the Team of Rivals, but I don’t want to do that,” Solis Doyle said. She explained that the past was too painful and filled with “so many” traumas.