Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign was only four days old when a suggestion landed in the inbox of John Podesta, her campaign chair.
It came from Brent Budowsky, a political columnist for the Hill. Budowsky suggested that Clinton should announce she wanted to get into a boxing ring with Carly Fiorina, then a Republican presidential candidate, for a charity event. Budowsky added a caveat — Clinton should only suggest to square off against Fiorina, he said, if she had “the daring and fiendish wit” to pull it off.
Podesta never replied to the email, and Clinton never talked about getting into the ring with the former Hewlett-Packard CEO. The Clinton-Fiorina rumble wasn’t to be.
Over the course of a multi-year presidential campaign, a torrent of advice flowed through Podesta’s inbox from all corners of the political world that he either ignored or rebuffed. Some called for Clinton to soften her tone on the banks, others to assemble an anti–Bernie Sanders “Truth Squad.” One person urged her to call Donald Trump a “WELSHER”; another suggested she appear in workout clothes on the campaign trail.
Podesta’s email inbox is filled with wild ideas like these. And to the best of what we’ve seen from the emails so far, most of them went nowhere.
Of course, it makes sense that the paths not taken by the Clinton campaign have gotten far less attention than the ones that were.
But WikiLeaks’ unprecedented email hack reveals something about the way the Clinton campaign operates that has nothing to do with alleged quid pro quo scandals or its close ties to donors — that Clinton’s 2016 campaign went so much better than her 2008 presidential run in part because it was able to reject some truly godawful ideas.
Podesta ignored buckets of terrible political advice from everyone and his mother
Throughout October, WikiLeaks has published more than 35,000 pages of emails hacked from Podesta’s private account. They’ve told us a lot about Clinton’s overall campaign and about her private speeches to Wall Street banks. The emails have given us new insights into the Clinton Foundation and its relationship with Moroccan government donors.
But they’re also revealing a lot about the role Podesta played as a clearinghouse for Clinton’s campaign. (Clinton’s team has refused to verify individual emails, instead noting that they were stolen with the help of hackers tied to the Russian government.)
Podesta is a longtime political operative. He was President Bill Clinton’s chief of staff, a senior adviser to President Obama, the president of the center-left think tank the Center for American Progress, and chair of Obama’s transition team.
But that wealth of experience didn’t prevent self-styled political experts of all stripes — mayors, former campaign operatives, donors, what appears to be random people — from telling Podesta what he could be doing better.
Sometimes that took the form of suggested one-liners for Clinton or her campaign surrogates. In one email, a comedian named Jon Macks gives Podesta a zinger — “transparency and openness doesn’t mean constantly posing with your shirt off” — that he thinks the team should use. (It never happened.)
In other emails, Podesta is urged to create some distance between Clinton and progressive groups. One, posted below, shows someone advising him to be slow to embrace teachers unions — out of fear that doing so would allow Jeb Bush to claim being on the side of students over teachers. (This, too, never appears to have wound its way into any action from the Clinton campaign.)
Another time, Dan Carol had an idea for Podesta to really nail Trump. (Carol was linked to Podesta through former Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber, according to the Washington Free Beacon.) He suggested Clinton go after the Republican presidential nominee by calling him a “WELSHER” — since he “welches out on agreements.” (Podesta never replied to or forwarded the email, which ends with a “ps: Yes you may lose a few Welsh votes...”) “Welsher” never made it onto the debate stage.
Another soothsayer argued that with rumors swirling about her health, Clinton should wear workout gear on the campaign trail. “Many people will identify with her,” the writer said. (We never got Clinton in yoga pants in Iowa.)
Then there’s the advice for improving Clinton’s speechifying. In one, sent right before Clinton’s drubbing in the New Hampshire primary against Bernie Sanders, someone tells Podesta that’s what’s needed is for Clinton to give an “Imagine” speech.
The writer even recommends a closing stanza, built around the line: “Let’s take imagination into creation together!” (This is not a line that ever wound up in a Hillary Clinton campaign speech.)
We shouldn’t overstate this: Sending some of these pitches to the wastebasket probably wasn’t too difficult of a decision for Podesta. But his rejection of some of these ideas suggest an unwillingness to reach for extreme overreactions, and underlines his broader commitment to stay the course amid the highs and lows of a long presidential race.
Podesta pushed “crazy hangers” to the sidelines of the Clinton campaign
During their three decades in public life, the Clintons have amassed a vast network of loyal allies, former aides, and other connections in the many corridors of Washington, DC. Many of them still have something to say.
According to the emails, it appears to have often fallen to Podesta to thank them for their input, say their insights would be considered, and show them the door politely (at least until his internal emails were splashed all over the internet).
This is one of the recurring themes in the emails: how Podesta quietly marginalized, and appeared to reduce the influence of, old Clinton hands who felt their thoughts should be incorporated into the campaign.
They were clearly on his mind. At one point, Center for American Progress president Neera Tanden and Podesta talked about how Clinton had wanted the campaign to hire “her old friend.” (It’s not clear from the email who the friend is.) Podesta appears to agree with Tanden that this was a terrible idea, and then says he wishes he could take all of the similar “assorted crazy hangers on,” rent the Queen Mary ocean liner, and have them “sail around and around” on it for the rest of the presidential campaign:
Unable to literally do that, Podesta often emailed about the Clintonworld “hangers on” who continued to cause havoc for the campaign. One recurring character in this mold is Sidney Blumenthal, a longtime adviser of Bill and Hillary Clinton. As the campaign struggled to deal with the fallout from revelations that Blumenthal had sent Secretary of State Clinton memos advising her on the Libya invasion, Podesta and Tanden talked in bitter terms about him. In a now widely discussed email, Podesta asked Tanden to “shoot me if I ever end up like that?” and later said Blumenthal was in his own “web of conspiracies.”
Blumenthal isn’t the only Clinton figure that WikiLeaks has revealed as being pushed to the side within her inner orbit. David Brock, a Clinton operative whose ties to the family date back to the late 1990s, also receives fairly rough treatment. Podesta tells New York Times reporter Nicholas Confessore in a previously off-the-record exchange that Brock has personal “eccentricities,” responds to a Politico story about Brock by saying, “crazy is as crazy does,” and at another point says, “Welcome to whacko land,” about a Brock email:
Outside of a minor scuffle in which Sanders delegates chased him through the floor of the Democratic National Convention screaming, “You fucking jerk!” Brock didn’t appear to leave much of an imprint on her campaign’s decisions.
A third Clintonworld aide the campaign appeared to decide not to trust was Philippe Reines, Clinton’s press secretary at the State Department. While at State, Reines sent a bizarre rant to Gawker in which he erupted at reporters’ questions and ridiculed “cockamamie” theories.
Podesta and Tanden watched Reines’s conflagration from afar and joked, bitterly and crudely, about “trying to get him committed” at a mental hospital:
Brock, Reins, Blumenthal — all are long associated with Clintonworld but were treated with intense suspicion by Podesta. That may speak to some of the key decisions her campaign did, and didn’t, make over the past 18 months.
Not going nuclear on Bernie
After watching one Democratic primary debate, Harvard professor and former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers thought he had identified Clinton’s problem — she was being too hard on the banks.
If Clinton talked about how “large financial institutions” supported job-creating companies, Summers advised Podesta in an email, she could deal a death blow to Sanders’s anti–Wall Street populism:
Podesta wasn’t having in it. In an email to another staffer, he noted that Summers’s idea may be the “worst advice ever”:
Clinton steered clear of attacking Sanders as insufficiency pro-bank, and when she did bring up their difference on TARP she did so by talking about the auto bailout funds that were tied up with TARP legislation — portraying herself as a champion of autoworkers rather than bankers. With Clinton spending much of the last several months of the general election still trying to win over Sanders voters, not doing everything to burn that bridge was probably the right move.
Of course, the fact that Clinton’s team passed on some attacks doesn’t mean they didn’t take up others. WikiLeaks has revealed plenty over which Sanders’s supporters have cried foul, including Podesta’s insinuation that he’d fire someone who talked to the press, insults Tanden threw in private against campaign finance crusader Lawrence Lessig, and Donna Brazile appearing to tip off Clinton’s campaign about Sanders’s African-American outreach efforts.
But Clinton’s team, and Podesta in particular, also passed on advice that called for escalating hostilities against the surging Vermont senator.
It’s not just Summers’s suggested attack. One nugget, in an email exchange between Podesta and Tanden, captures their reaction to a suggestion in Clintonworld to demand that Sanders release his medical records. (The subject line reads “Brock,” though it’s not 100 percent clear why, but it appears to be in reference to something Brock said.)
In a third, longtime Clinton aide Lanny Davis, 70, announced a plan to win over Sanders’s millennial voters by talking about the importance of deficit responsibility over health care. “Facts facts facts,” Davis urged, talking about the need to go after Sanders’s mantle of “authenticity.” He wanted to do so on the Sunday morning talk shows, which most millennials probably do not watch.
Podesta never replied to the email.
What this tells us about Clinton 2016 versus Clinton 2008
Shortly after Hillary Clinton’s 2008 campaign ended, the Atlantic’s Joshua Green published an exhaustive autopsy of what had gone wrong with her team.
He had plenty of material to work with. He uncovered troves of emails and memos in which Clinton’s team pursued strategies that advanced contradictory goals, ridiculed each other, and allowed the candidate to launch attacks that backfired spectacularly.
Green wrote of the 2008 Clinton campaign’s internal emails:
The anger and toxic obsessions overwhelmed even the most reserved Beltway wise men. Surprisingly, Clinton herself, when pressed, was her own shrewdest strategist, a role that had never been her strong suit in the White House.
But her advisers couldn’t execute strategy; they routinely attacked and undermined each other, and Clinton never forced a resolution. Major decisions would be put off for weeks until suddenly she would erupt, driving her staff to panic and misfire.
As Green went on to note, there was a rich irony here. Clinton’s experience and preparedness were perhaps the leading arguments for her candidacy in 2008. “Clinton ran on the basis of managerial competence — on her capacity, as she liked to put it, to ‘do the job from Day One,’” Green wrote. The fact that her team was riven with such bitter internal discord undermined the core premise of her 2008 candidacy.
This time around, very little evidence of that kind of internal mayhem has emerged through Podesta’s emails. Of course, Clinton’s ideological opponents will continue to oppose her. No amount of crisp management can overcome fundamental differences about what American government can and should do. And maybe there are more WikiLeaks emails still to come out that will show her 2016 campaign wasn’t really that different, and that her team didn’t do that much better of a job than it did in 2008.
But from what we’ve seen so far, Podesta has run a much tighter ship than Terry McAuliffe did last time around.
WikiLeaks has damaged Clinton by showing her private remarks to bankers, her ties to donors, and her connection to the Clinton Foundation. But the emails revealing how her team operates have also formed a powerful case that suggests she’ll be equipped to handle the management of the White House.