It was supposed to be different this time. After the wounds of 2008, many of them self-inflicted, Hillary Rodham Clinton rebooted for 2016 with a new message, new advisers and new energy.
“A lot of the people who were hired by the campaign were new to the Clintons,” said a prominent Democrat who counts both Hillary Clinton and former president Bill Clinton as friends. “I kind of assumed it would be different. But it hasn’t changed.”
That Democrat and other supporters requested anonymity in order to discuss the shortcomings of a candidate whom they still overwhelmingly support and think can win the White House. Several supporters said that while no one is pulling the fire alarm, they see worrisome patterns emerging.
Among them: insularity, rigidity and a sense that the operation is tone-deaf to changes happening around it.
The concerns come as Hillary Clinton is weakened by forces both within and outside her control, allies outside the campaign said. And if her campaign is doing some things well — raising money and organizing in early states — Clinton has not been able to shake off basic questions about her skills as a candidate.
Her campaign has been slow off the mark in responding to the surprising surge in national support for Vermont independent Sen. Bernie Sanders, several Democrats said. That’s one reason Vice President Biden and his allies are pondering a challenge to Clinton.
Meanwhile, the confusing saga of Clinton’s private e-mail system took what many Democrats saw as a chilling turn last week, with more news about the FBI’s investigation into the potential mishandling of classified material on Clinton’s home computer server. Clinton is not the target of the investigation but, in the words of one Democrat, no one wants their candidate’s name in the same sentence as “FBI.”
Clinton the fighter
One Democrat with past experience in presidential campaigns said Clinton and her advisers need to be risk-takers.
“They need to show her being bold and being a fighter and breaking out of this carefully constructed, opportunistic package that people think she is,” said another Democrat.
“There’s clearly emotion out there and she’s just not going anywhere near it, and she needs to find a way to.”
Her campaign staff protests that they are doing just that and cautions that any freak-out is vastly premature.
“We’re spending the next two weeks on pretty intensive political education” among supporters, said communications director Jennifer Palmieri. “Explain the facts, but also the political context that they have to look at this through. We’ll handle it. Fight back.”
Clinton has been feistier on the stump lately, delivering a partisan barn-burner of a speech to Iowa Democrats on Friday night. She framed the e-mail issue as part of a sustained Republican attack on everything Clinton.
“It’s not about e-mails or servers,” Clinton said. “It’s about politics.”
She pledged to “do my part to provide transparency to Americans,” but she skimmed over the messy details, including the fact, reported by The Washington Post, that she did not turn over her private server and a thumb drive containing her e-mails until after the Justice Department asked for them two weeks ago.
“I won’t get down in the mud with them,” Clinton said. “I won’t pretend that this is anything other than what it is — the same old partisan games we’ve seen so many times before.”
The echoes of the old “vast right-wing conspiracy” that she once said was out to get her and President Clinton were hard to miss, and the crowd at the annual “Wing Ding” dinner ate it up.
Hillary Clinton has not taken on Sanders directly, and she deferentially says Biden’s choice should be his to make. Her campaign says she will confront Sanders in due time, and certainly at the first Democratic debate in October, and is up to the challenge of both a primary and a general election fight.
“You can’t take this woman down,” Palmieri said. “On most days she has 19 candidates attacking her. I doubt that any other candidate on either side could withstand that kind of incoming as well.”
A change in the air
Still, saving all her firepower for Republicans leaves Clinton open to criticism from her own partisans that she is misreading the primary terrain.
Clinton designed a strategy founded on economic populism. Clinton argues that she has the experience and the temperament to be a champion for those who feel left out of a changing economic landscape and an imperfect economic recovery.
Sanders and Republican Donald Trump are tapping into something related but more visceral — a grass-roots, antiestablishment anger that is hard for Clinton to address with wonky policy prescriptions.
That may not be her fault, supporters said, but they want to see her acknowledge and adjust for it.
Another Democrat, also a veteran of presidential politics, said what the campaign needs is a more intense approach rather than a total overhaul. Clinton has campaigned episodically and often in controlled environments but not for sustained periods in more free-form settings.
“What do you do about the restiveness” among Democrats? the strategist asked. “The answer is you plunge in” by campaigning hard and doing so face-to-face with voters.
Democrats not directly involved in the Clinton campaign agreed that many of her events lack energy and emotion at a time when voters are responding to the blunt rabble-rousing messages of Sanders or Trump.
Many criticized the roundtable discussions Clinton is fond of holding as stilted and artificial, although some have yielded lively discussions of race, gun violence and drug addiction, among other topics.
What she needs, outside critics said, are events where she can show greater spontaneity.
Such agility is what her campaign advisers promised when they began in the spring, and it’s what Sanders appears to be showing now.
The Clinton campaign has sought to address supporters’ concerns about the Sanders threat and the e-mail issue, holding quiet sessions with influential Democrats over the past two weeks and distributing reassuring messages via e-mail.
Senior campaign officials have met with Democrats at the campaign headquarters in Brooklyn and in Washington. They have also made calls to what the campaign refers to as “talkers,” or partisans who talk to reporters or appear on television.
“Like any presidential campaign, we face our share of challenges,” campaign manager Robby Mook wrote in a “state of the race” memo distributed last week and obtained by The Post.
“In the face of these unprecedented headwinds, we’ve made a strategic decision to fight back and set the record straight,” Mook wrote.
His memo is mostly a recitation of what he identifies as the weaknesses and failings of the Republican field, plus an itemization of Clinton’s impressive fundraising, field organizing and social-media statistics. He stresses Clinton’s still-comfortable lead in national head-to-head polls against Republicans.
There is no direct mention of either the e-mail issue or Sanders’s summer surge, but Mook’s message is clear: There is no reason to panic.
“The fact remains, the Democratic primary will be competitive. History guarantees it,” Mook wrote.
Palmieri wrote to supporters after news last week that the FBI would take possession of the server Clinton had kept in her Chappaqua, N.Y., basement.
“Look, this kind of nonsense comes with the territory of running for president,” Palmieri wrote. “We know it, Hillary knows it, and we expect it to continue from now until Election Day. It’s OK. We’ll be ready. We have the facts, our principles, and you on our side.”
The e-mail issue has dampened Clinton’s support in New Hampshire, which holds the nation’s first primary, on Feb. 9. Sanders rose to a statistical tie there in the latest statewide poll, to the shock of some longtime Clinton backers. She is on safer ground in Iowa, which will hold the nation’s first presidential selection vote in the Feb. 1 caucuses.
Democrats in Washington fret that the e-mail liability is something Clinton brought on herself and has managed from a defensive crouch. The decision to operate a separate e-mail system parallel to the regular State Department system has resulted in an investigation that is now out of the control of Clinton and her campaign advisers.
Political strategists who have been through past such episodes note that an investigation like this can go in unexpected and damaging directions.
"I don't think there's a big smoking gun," one Democrat said. "But it's hard to explain why you had a private server, why you just now turned it over. . . . Shouldn't you have had better judgment?"
Echoes of scandals past
The e-mail issue also recalls scandals of Clintonworld past and involves some of the same players, such as longtime Clinton attorney and confidant David Kendall.
Kendall has negotiated with congressional Republicans over access to Clinton’s e-mails and her forthcoming congressional testimony. Clinton entrusted him with a portable computer storage drive containing copies of her work-related e-mails.
Clinton and Kendall share a penchant for secrecy and a resistance to disclosure. But the best legal strategy is not always the best political one, Democrats said.
“She gave up her server,” one seasoned Democratic operative said. “Think how good it would have been if she had done it five months ago.”
Underlying that concern is an itchy sense among some Democrats that however skilled and capable Clinton and her husband are politically, they carry baggage that is hard to shake off. Every new controversy is a reminder that this is part of what comes with the Clintons.
“Getting out there and passionately campaigning and interacting with people in a genuine way is how you combat that,” said a Democratic strategist. “I think the absence of presence out there creates a vacuum in which these kinds of questions metastasize.”
The e-mail issue plays directly to public doubts about Clinton’s honesty, trustworthiness and judgment.
Clinton had said in March that she would not relinquish control of the server but relented last week. Clinton has also been forced to amend her initial blanket statement that she never sent any classified material over the home-based server while she was secretary of state. She now maintains that she never sent material that was labeled classified at the time.
Even Democrats who critique the Clinton campaign, however, say she remains formidable, both in the primary and in a general election.
“She’s still in a very, very strong position,” another strategist said. “I don’t think we’re in a free-fall situation here.”