Senior Democrats are increasingly worried that Hillary Rodham Clinton is not ready to run for president, fearing that the clumsy and insular handling of the nine-day fracas over her private e-mails was a warning sign about the campaign expected to launch next month.
Few Democrats believe that the revelations about her unorthodox e-mail practices as secretary of state are a substantive issue that would damage Clinton with voters, and many said she performed adequately in a Tuesday news conference defending herself.
But in interviews Wednesday with The Washington Post, current and former Democratic officeholders and operatives from across the country raised serious questions about her and her political team’s strength and readiness for a 2016 presidential campaign.
“She’s tried to put the day of reckoning off, but it’s come now, and I don’t think she can stand another couple of weeks of this without her structure in place,” said Jim Hodges, a former governor of South Carolina.
Some Democrats said Clinton’s initial refusal to provide answers in the growing e-mail controversy smacked of arrogance and a worrisome bunker mentality — and that the controversy was a self-inflicted wound.
“Had this story been responded to in two or three days instead of in eight days, it would not be as big,” said Robert Gibbs, a former White House press secretary under President Obama. “They are the ones who put air in this balloon in a way that was not necessary at all. . . . It’s clear they lack an apparatus. She’s a candidate without a campaign.”
A Clinton spokesman did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday.
Last week, supporters in Congress and others were willing to go on cable television to defend Clinton on the e-mails but were puzzled when her aides did not provide talking points or other information that might help them, according to Clinton allies. “A lot of people were flying blind,” said one Democratic ally who spoke on the condition of anonymity to comment candidly. Requests for information “were met with dead silence” from Clinton’s team, this person said. “This shows they have a long way to go until their organization is ready for prime time.”
Some of Clinton’s longtime allies in the Senate and House leadership did receive guidance from the Clinton camp, although their aides were frustrated that they had to proactively reach out to Clinton aides to get it.
But Correct the Record — an outside political group set up specifically to defend Clinton in the media — received only a brief set of talking points from Clinton’s office instructing them to dismiss the story as silly and to compare Clinton’s use of a private e-mail account to former secretary of state Colin Powell’s use of an AOL account. The group was given no additional information for days, leaving Correct the Record founder David Brock and other surrogates to craft their own, sometimes incongruous, defenses.
Many Democrats who want Clinton to succeed lament that she has stepped back into the political arena in a defensive posture, reminding voters what they disliked about the Clinton scandals of the 1990s. “This begins her campaign in a bad place — it’s the gateway drug to her past,” said one Democratic strategist and presidential campaign veteran who also spoke on the condition of anonymity to be candid.
Some Democrats also believe that Clinton comes off as coy or cynical by repeatedly insisting she has not made a decision to run for president, even as she signs up dozens of senior campaign staffers in New York, Iowa and elsewhere.
“Democrats are really worried about her,” said Hank Sheinkopf, a New York-based strategist who once worked for Clinton. “They want to be sure that she can win. They’re not used to this anxiety, because they’ve had eight years of winners.”
Nevertheless, Clinton is the unquestioned presumptive front-runner for the Democratic nomination, and polling suggests she is weathering the bad news cycle so far. An NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll released Monday finds her favorable rating at 44 percent, compared with 36 percent unfavorable. Among likely Democratic primary voters, 86 percent said they could see themselves supporting Clinton. Just 13 percent said they could not.
“The best answer to this is going to be when she starts running for president and is traveling around the country talking about things that people care about,” said longtime Democratic strategist Steve Elmendorf.
William M. Daley, an influential Chicago Democrat who served as White House chief of staff during Obama’s first term, said he thinks Clinton “stopped the bleeding” with her news conference. But he acknowledged that neither her performance nor her continued strength in polling have calmed agita among Democratic elites.
“There’s a disconnect between her standing right now and this Democratic chattering class of nervousness,” Daley said. Asked how she might convince leaders in her party that the controversy is in the rearview mirror, he said: “Assure Democrats there can’t be another flare-up? She can’t do that.”
Some Clinton defenders said the media scrutiny on the e-mails story has been unfair to her.
“She used the wrong e-mail account — duh-dah! It’s ridiculous,” said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.). “I’m not indulging this bizarre fetish.” Asked if he had doubts about Clinton’s political standing, Whitehouse said: “No. This is totally artificial. You guys have lost your minds on this.”
Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) said she is confident Clinton will be prepared for the rigors of the campaign. “All 50,000 of [the Republicans] that are running for president are going to take every opportunity to rip her apart. That’s called a campaign — and I’m fully aware that she expects that.”
Clinton has been operating without a full team. While campaign-manager-in-waiting Robby Mook and longtime confidante Huma Abedin are already on board, some of the senior aides tapped for her campaign are not yet, including Jennifer Palmieri, who will become Clinton’s communications director but still holds the same position in the Obama White House.
Strategist Kiki McLean, a Clinton ally, said the past week has been “more of an issue of staff capacity than competence.”
Another strategist and Clinton ally, Hilary Rosen, said that this was “definitely not the month they’d hoped for” but that the Clinton team plans to build a better communications and political operation to manage future controversies.
“It’s unfortunate that they didn’t prepare earlier for this, but I don’t think that we should look at this as a symbol of anything other than just bad timing,” Rosen said. “I think they’re moving quickly to try and accommodate the tremendous interest in her right now. That’s a challenge.”
Former Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell, a longtime Clinton backer, said that her news conference was “a good first step” but that “she’s got to be more forthcoming.”
“If there’s no serious campaign, she still has to put herself out there because of who she is, because of the obsession over the Clintons,” Rendell said. “She’ll be forced to answer questions — and she’s got to be in a position to do it.”
Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) said he wants to see Clinton’s campaign up and running so she can talk about issues that energize voters, such as income inequality.
“I think the debate really is joined now with so many Republicans in the field,” Wyden said. “When you have a formal campaign launch, that puts in place a communications network and an infrastructure. . . . I think that will be very helpful.”
James Blanchard, a former governor of Michigan who chaired Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign in the state, said the past nine days showed him that “she’ll need to be more on her toes.”
“The team around her is on notice now that they’ll need to respond to criticisms and accusations in a more timely fashion,” Blanchard said.
Anne Gearan contributed to this report.