The 2016 campaign has acquired an unexpected storyline in its early stages: All Madam President’s Men.
As Hillary Clinton begins to staff her nascent presidential campaign, a paradox has emerged. When she ran in 2008, she played down her potential to make history as the first woman to be president, but her campaign was run by a woman and dominated at the top levels by women. This time, Clinton is properly emphasizing her path-breaking role, but she’s relying on the old-boy network – in large part by taking over President Obama’s heavily male campaign apparatus.
Her campaign chairman: John Podesta. Her campaign manager: Robby Mook. Her chief strategist: Joel Benenson. Her pollsters: Benenson, John Anzalone and David Binder. Her top media guy: Jim Margolis.
This is quite a departure from Clinton’s run eight years ago, when a Huffington Post study found that eight of her 14 senior staffers and 12 of her 20 highest-paid staffers were women. By contrast, only three of Obama’s top 12 staffers were women, and in less important roles.
This surely wasn’t Clinton’s intent, but her decision to re-brand Obama’s frat house as her own puts out a message quite at odds with her candidacy: that women can’t run a presidential campaign. “Will Hillary ‘16 be a ‘White Dude Fest?’” the Daily Beast asked last month.
Clinton world has since done some damage control, letting it be known that Jennifer Palmieri would run the campaign’s communications operation and that Mandy Grunwald would have a role. And some of the grumbling about Clinton’s early hires isn’t fair: Huma Abedin, Cheryl Mills and Maggie Williams, though they don’t (yet) have official roles, are highly influential members of Clinton’s inner circle. From what I’ve heard, Clinton lieutenants were surprised by the reaction to the early slate of male hires. They say they blundered in putting out the names of several men at once and were not making a fundamental shift from the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pantsuit to the Obama towel snappers.
Even so, this suggests a tone deafness reminiscent of Obama’s handling of the issue. A 2009 basketball game at the White House in which only men played became a symbol of an administration that excluded women from top positions.
There is one very good reason for Clinton simply to put her name on the door of Obama’s campaign operation: His advisers clearly know how to win elections.
But it’s just as possible that merging Obama’s advisers with her loyalists will produce more squabbling. Many of the officials now poised to work for Clinton spoke of her with contempt eight years ago. Have they suddenly been converted?
Podesta, a Clinton loyalist who worked in the Obama White House until last week, will have the job of cracking down on such antics. He’s playing the conventionally male role of being Clinton’s enforcer – the godfather of the Clinton syndicate.
He’ll have the unenviable task of breaking up the knife fights between Obama’s boys and Clinton’s boys.
We can’t yet know whether Podesta can keep the calm, or whether one faction or the other will prevail. But this much we know: The woman who would be the first to reach the presidency has decided that it takes a whole lot of testosterone to win the White House.
Milbank writes for the Washington Post.