The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Hillary Clinton’s biggest campaign problem may be, well, Hillary Clinton

Hillary Clinton. (Justin Lane/European Pressphoto Agency)

Stop me if you've heard this before: Amid a slower-than-expected start to a presidential primary campaign, there are rumors of a staff shake-up in Hillary Clinton's campaign.

Write Glenn Thrush and Annie Karni at Politico:

Hillary and Bill Clinton are so dissatisfied with their campaign’s messaging and digital operations they are considering staffing and strategy changes after what’s expected to be a loss in Tuesday’s primary here, according to a half-dozen people with direct knowledge of the situation.
The Clintons -- stung by her narrow victory in Iowa -- had been planning to reassess staffing at the campaign’s Brooklyn headquarters after the first four primaries, but the Clintons have become increasingly caustic in their criticism of aides and demanded the reassessment sooner, a source told Politico.

The prime target of the Clintons' ire, according to Glenn and Annie, is pollster Joel Benenson, a key cog of both of President Obama's successful races -- although the reporting duo note that the most likely scenario is no one getting fired but rather people getting layered over.

Clinton, for her part, gave a sort of non-denial denial of the piece in an interview with MSNBC's Rachel Maddow. “I have no idea what they’re talking about or who they are talking to," Clinton said. "We’re going to take stock, but it’s going to be the campaign that I’ve got."

I don't spend every day inside the Clinton campaign. So, I can't say that an addition here or a subtraction there would make a big difference in how the campaign operates or how effective Clinton's messaging is on the campaign trail. But here's what I do know: The lone, major common thread between the 2008 campaign and the 2016 campaign is Hillary (and Bill) Clinton. Which raises that most uncomfortable of possible explanations for the problems experienced by Hillary Clinton in her two presidential campaigns: It's the candidate.

It's no secret by this point that Clinton's skill set (resilience, perseverance, deep policy knowledge) translates better to being president rather than running for president. As a candidate, she tends to be deeply cautious, guarded and suspicious of all but her most loyal advisers (and sometimes them, too). She is slow to react on issues and problems that she believes are trumped up or not serious; the controversy over her email server and the rise of Bernie Sanders are just two examples of that tendency.

Then there is the matter of her husband and the dozen or so longtime Clinton whisperers -- from Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe to Mark Penn -- who are forever in her political orbit. Again, Thrush and Karni:

The focus of their dissatisfaction in recent days is the campaign’s top pollster and strategist Joel Benenson, whom one Clinton insider described as being “on thin ice,” as the former first couple vented its frustrations about messaging following Clinton’s uncomfortably close 0.25 percent win in last week’s caucuses. Benenson, multiple staffers and operatives say, has been equally frustrated with the Clintons’ habit of tapping a rolling cast of about a dozen outside advisers – who often have the candidate’s ear outside the official channels of communication.

In the run-up to Clinton's 2016 campaign, her senior staffers made clear that this would be a totally different sort of campaign than the one in 2008, most notably because the likes of Penn would be on the outside while a group of younger aides more familiar with the challenges of modern races would be making decisions. Robby Mook, the young campaign nerd beloved by everyone who ever worked with him, was the living, breathing sign of that change.

And yet, Mook himself had to endure questions from the press last week about whether his job was in danger after whispers that a staff shake-up was on the way. What's clear from the Politico report is that, for the Clintons, old habits die hard. Sure, a year ago it was easy to say that the new generation would run things. Clinton was ahead by 50 points, and the chances of a Sanders boomlet looked roughly equivalent to the chances of winning the Powerball lottery. But now, having narrowly escaped an Iowa caucuses loss and staring down a double-digit defeat in New Hampshire on Tuesday, the pressure is on, and the old voices appear to be reasserting themselves.

Then there is the most enigmatic of factors when dealing with Hillary Clinton: Bill Clinton. There's no real debate that the former president hurt his wife's cause during the 2008 campaign thanks to a series of impolitic comments about then-Sen. Barack Obama.

Over the weekend, Bill seemed to be at it again -- savaging Sanders and his supporters as sexist and stretchers of the truth. “When you’re making a revolution, you can’t be too careful with the facts," Bill Clinton said on Sunday in New Hampshire.

The reality is that no one -- certainly not at the staff level -- can control what Bill Clinton says or does. He is not only a former president but is also one of the most gifted campaigners and political strategists of his time (or of any time). But he also, at times, feeds the worst political instincts of Hillary Clinton: that she (and he) are being judged by an unfair set of standards, that "people" are out to get them, that the press is "rooting" for the other candidate.

Hillary Clinton is unleashing her biggest weapon on Bernie Sanders: Bill (Video: Peter Stevenson/The Washington Post)

And so, here we are. Again. Talk of a staff shake-up. The beginnings of an internal blame game. The old Clinton people vs. the new Clinton people.

Forgetting history in this case doesn't mean that Hillary Clinton is doomed to repeat it. Sanders, for all of the remarkableness of his rise in the polls, is not Obama circa 2008. Despite his surprising strength in Iowa and New Hampshire, he has shown little ability to broaden his support base beyond young people and well-educated, affluent whites. Without finding a way to appeal to older voters and black and Hispanic voters, the math in a Democratic primary simply doesn't add up for Sanders.

But the very fact that Clinton finds herself in a real race against a 74-year-old socialist who openly admits he will need to raise middle-class taxes to pay for his programs suggests that all is not right in Clintonworld.

Rather than fire someone or add lots of someones, the Clintons might be best served to look in the mirror first. The common variable in both of these campaigns is them. And they are also almost certainly the only two people who can fix what ails her current bid.