No doubt about it, the Hillary Express appears to be running smoothly at last. In the polls, Hillary Rodham Clinton has begun to rise. In the press, she has begun to shine. In the flesh, she has begun to step out of the shell around her more embattled self and have a little fun: On the campaign trail of late, whether she was rallying union rank-and-file in midtown Manhattan, or chatting with upstate pols about the joys of fishing in the Susquehanna River, Mrs. Clinton emanated the relaxed, relieved euphoria of a person who has just found out that her terminal diagnosis was the result of a dreadful file mix-up at the hospital, and that she is not about to croak at all.
Meanwhile, however, many in and around her campaign are exuding a rather different, even opposite, quality: So far from relaxation or relief, there is a sense running through Team Hillary of the shoe about to drop; an ax about to fall; a general apprehension as to what will happen when-as they wisely realize is inevitable-their candidate’s numbers fall, her opponent gets his groove back and they hit the next rough patch of road. The candidate certainly seems to be settling in, but not, quite yet, the campaign. For as of now, the Hillary Express, though it is extremely crowded, is basically a bus without a driver-or at least without one driver with a good, firm grip on the wheel. And by some accounts, it doesn’t really need one. “The search for linear structure of any campaign of this size and importance is a search in vain,” said Mrs. Clinton’s campaign manager Bill de Blasio, by way of cautioning against mistaking a necessary-and highly Clintonian-division of labor among several strong-willed strategists for an unholy mess plain and simple.
But if you ask some of those aboard, they’d rather be strapped in tight, thank you.
“The entire campaign is talking about this,” said a well-placed passenger, of the sense, expressed to The Observer by several people speaking from several vantage points, that a struggle has emerged for the strategic soul of the campaign. The skirmish is said to be between, on the one hand, Harold Ickes, the First Lady’s longtime friend and the original architect of her candidacy, and, on the other, Mark Penn, her pollster, along with Mandy Grunwald, her media adviser.
“That’s absurd,” said Ms. Grunwald. And it very well may be. But it is also all over the place, and that is intriguing.
“The fear is that [Mrs. Clinton] is going to be making a decision [between or about those two camps],” said the source quoted above. This being an equal-opportunity sort of operation, the fear is also that the First Lady is not going to be making a decision. But there is one certainty: When, how, and whether Mrs. Clinton decides to address the issue of who is ultimately driving her campaign will have a major impact on why, how and whether she gets where she wants to go.
The undisputed driver used to be Mr. Ickes, of course. And officially at least, that is still as true as it ever was. “Every single day, Harold is deeply involved,” said Mr. de Blasio. “He has been a part of every major strategic conversation that we have had from Day 1.” Indeed, whatever the buzz at any given moment, it is simply unbelievable that Mr. Ickes, who has stuck with the First Lady through times far more tempestuous than this one-and who has, anyway, liberally sprinkled her staff with some of his politically nearest and dearest, including Mr. de Blasio-will ever lack a significant influence on the direction of the bus, let alone step off it.
It seems equally clear, however, that at the moment, it is not primarily his hands that are on the wheel-and that this reflects something more than a bearing out of his long-maintained prediction that as the campaign staffed up, his involvement would scale down. As of last week, for example, Mr. Ickes had reportedly not even seen television ads being prepared for air. (On this one, Ms. Grunwald invoked her general no-comment policy on such internal matters.) Likewise, several staffers who were accustomed to regular contact with Mr. Ickes voiced a sense that he has receded somewhat-although other sources, who tended to come from the pool of Mr. Ickes’ political associates in New York rather than from the campaign itself, claimed to have absolutely no such sense. Mr. Ickes did not return calls for comment.
Some feel that what it reflects is frustration with the widely acknowledged sense that it is Mr. Penn whose hands are primarily on the wheel. His friends speculate that, while Mr. Ickes’ intense, direct, hands-on, up-yours style would seem to complement Mr. Penn’s more distant approach, Mr. Ickes quite possibly does not appreciate the sensation of dealing with the day-to-day details while the big picture is painted elsewhere. To be sure, Mrs. Clinton’s pollster-plus has, at the least, a seat right up front, where he is showing his homework, or rather his research, to his best friend, President Bill Clinton. Mr. Penn’s access to, relationship with, and strong support from the President obviously guarantee that no kid on this bus will dare to bully him-and, perhaps as obviously, that every kid on this bus will delight in besmirching him. Criticisms currently aflow from Mr. Penn’s detractors include, but are not limited to, the sentiment that it is ill-advised for him, as the campaign’s pollster, to play so large a role in the shaping of its message, insofar as this puts him in the position of test-marketing a product that he has manufactured; that, even if this were not the case, his having been fired by the campaign of Vice President Al Gore does not recommend him to drive that of the First Lady; and that his eagerness to share his information with the President is mirrored by an equal and opposite eagerness to keep it from some in the campaign who need it.
No doubt Mr. Penn would take strong issue with all of the above, but he did not return a call for comment. It is, however, indisputable that Mr. Penn has got one of the best seats on the bus, and this makes all the other kids on the bus nuts .
Well, almost all the other kids. Also up front, passing Mr. Penn a note, is Mandy Grunwald, the media adviser, who is seen as an ally of Mr. Penn against Mr. Ickes, but whose prime and protected placement lies in her own stellar seatmate. The First Lady, who feels that Ms. Grunwald has been deeply loyal to her, is, in turn, deeply loyal to Ms. Grunwald.
And from there on back, it is pretty much one giant rolling food fight-although many of the lowlier New York operatives, acutely aware that they have absolutely no history with Mrs. Clinton, nor with the ways of White House-scale infighting, seem too petrified to throw anything. (More likely, they are just hoping that some arrogant Washington rear end will sit on somebody’s juice box.) First friend Susan Thomases, who everyone insists has been relegated from influence on every aspect of the campaign save the field operation, but who seems to be around an awful lot, is screaming for the bus to stop and for everyone to get off for a re-haul; although California-based fund-raiser Laura Hartigan seems to be the only person who has actually left the bus thus far. Long viewed as a key, if unofficial, figure in this effort, Maggie Williams, the former chief of staff to the First Lady, is not screaming, but she is not smiling, either. In the Hollywood section, Harry and Linda Bloodworth-Thomason are expressing concern about an insufficiently substantive message. People in the section of the bus reserved for major New York political boosters, such as Rep. Charles Rangel and United Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten, seem to be humming along, enjoying the ride-but no one around them doubts that they can make real mischief at any time they want.
Way in the back of the bus, bemoaning how cramped they are and how unappreciated, are more-and in some cases very -minor political figures who are alternately flirting with and throwing spitballs at Mr. de Blasio. Charged with pleasing everyone from the First Lady to the last disgruntled Democratic district leader, Mr. de Blasio is wandering up and down the aisle, with an open lunchbox full of palliative Twinkies: some to appease the aforementioned hacks, and some to please the big kids up front.
You get the picture.
Not, one hastens to add, that it is a picture of doom. In life, of course, a speeding bus without a driver leads inexorably to disaster. In elections, though, that is not necessarily the case. The annals of American politics certainly do not lack for chaotic, contempt-filled campaigns that ended up winning, and slick, cogent campaigns that ended up losing, for a thousand reasons. Conversely, a bus with a driver does not, in and of itself, carry a candidate to victory: After all, no one doubts that Mayor Rudolph Giuliani is driving his bus, and, as recent days demonstrate, one mustn’t underestimate his potential to drive it right over a cliff. Moreover, big egos struggling for big chunks of turf in big campaigns is not only not surprising; it’s inevitable. And in this case, given the histories of the personalities, both in general and as they have related to each other, it is even more inevitable than usual. For Mr. Penn, who arrived in the White House for the 1996 campaign as an associate of Dick Morris, to clash with Mr. Ickes, the progressive who was, or tried to be, the nemesis of all things Morris, is par for the course, and everyone involved knew that going in. And finally, the many cooks represent, in part, nothing more (or less) ominous than Mrs. Clinton’s well-known preference for seeking different advice about different matters from different people. This, of course, can drive those different people up the wall, but after all, they do work for her .
All that said, though, there are those who feel a strong urge to paraphrase Mrs. Clinton’s second favorite Roosevelt, who once said that there is nothing to fear but fear itself, with the observation that the only decision she has to make is that she has to make some decisions. For it is indecision, perhaps more than any other single trait, that has incurred the greatest criticism for characterizing, and by some accounts paralyzing, this campaign from Day 1. Given the stakes involved, this is as understandable in those who embody it as it is infuriating to those who encounter it. There is indecision on matters small (whether to hire a relatively high-level gay operative, as gay elected officials say that Mr. de Blasio pledged to do months ago); medium (whether to seek the Independence Party line, or leave it alone, for fear of offending Jewish voters with a Pat Buchanan-Lenora Fulani connection) and large (when to air television commercials). Uncertainty, like familiarity, breeds contempt. If the campaign is sniping, carping and leaking like this now, imagine what it will be like when things get interesting.
Then again, maybe The Observer is just hearing things. “Harold’s role has been strong and consistent from Day 1,” said Mr. de Blasio. “And Penn’s role has been strong and consistent from Day 1.”
So Hillary’s in her Chappaqua, and all is right with the world. Isn’t that wonderful?