Panetta's Lament: They Had No Plan

The argument that the constant carping about Hillary Clinton’s campaign has been a function of an Obama-friendly, process-obsessed media is well and good. But how, then, to explain the deeply held dissatisfaction of an old Clinton loyalist like Leon Panetta?

In an interview with The Observer, Mr. Panetta compared Mrs. Clinton’s top strategist, Mark Penn, to Karl Rove, suggested that the Clinton campaign had totally underestimated Barack Obama’s appeal, and complained about the overall lack of planning that he said had characterized the former First Lady’s bid to return to the White House.

Mr. Panetta, who served as chief of staff in the White House from July 1994 to January 1997, and who has contributed $2000 to Mrs. Clinton’s presidential campaign, complained that Mr. Penn “is a political pollster from the past.”

”I never considered him someone who would run a national campaign for the presidency,” he said.

He asserted that Mr. Penn “comes from an old school, like Karl Rove—it’s all about dividing people into smaller groups rather than taking the broader approach that was needed.”

Referring to Barack Obama, he said, “I think he really captured early on this deep feeling in the country about needing change in Washington. And people have underestimated how deep that sense was, just how much people felt the need for change.”

Mr. Panetta added that “for the money they brought in” the Clinton campaign “should have done a much better job.”

On the now-deposed campaign manager Patti Solis Doyle, Mr. Panetta said, “Solis was someone who was obviously close to the [former] First Lady and had good relations with her, but again she didn’t have the experience that you need.”

Mr. Panetta served for 16 years in Congress prior to taking up his Clinton White House position and is now a director of the Panetta Institute, a nonpartisan center for the study of public policy at California State University.

Aside from his criticisms of specific people at the top of Mrs. Clinton’s team, he also asserted that the campaign in general had neither created an efficient ground operation nor shown tactical wisdom in its deployment of available resources.

“It seems to me like they rolled the dice on Super Tuesday, thinking that would end it,” he said. “And when it didn’t end it, they didn’t have a plan. And when it came to the caucus states, they did have a plan—which was to ignore them. I think those were serious mistakes.”

Mr. Panetta’s former boss, the 42nd president, has faced criticism in some quarters for the role he has played in his wife’s campaign. In particular, questions have arisen as to whether his irascibility has proved a damaging distraction.

Last month, Mr. Clinton derided Mr. Obama’s claim to have consistently opposed the Iraq war as a “fairy tale,” blew up at a reporter who asked him about a court case relating to the Nevada caucuses, and invoked Jesse Jackson’s successes in South Carolina two decades ago in what many observers—including some of Mrs. Clinton’s African-American supporters—saw as an attempt to marginalize Mr. Obama’s candidacy.

Though Mr. Panetta spoke cautiously about Mr. Clinton, he suggested that Mrs. Clinton’s advisers might have acted more prudently to neutralize the former president’s uneven temperament.

“I know from talking to him that he really does want to try to help her win,” Mr. Panetta said. “That’s what he has been trying to do. But he tends, like all of us, to sometimes have quick reactions to things.

“In the White House, if there was something important coming up, we would prepare him and engage him about what questions he might expect. And sometimes,” Mr. Panetta added with a rueful laugh, “that would let him get things out of his system while he was just with us.”

As for Mrs. Clinton, Mr. Panetta suggested that her apparent failure to connect with the public had been, at least in part, a consequence of the settings in which she had been placed by her campaign advisors.

“On television, they could have made her someone who came across as more genuine,” he said. “She comes across more that way when she talks to smaller groups, but they didn’t do that in an effective way.”

Asked about Mrs. Clinton’s closing statement at the Feb. 21 CNN debate in Austin, Texas, where she spoke of being “absolutely honored” to be sharing the stage with Mr. Obama and expressed concern for the nation’s future, Mr. Panetta said, “I think that was her strongest moment, and I would have recommended taking that kind of approach a long time ago. I think that idea of talking about the country and showing some emotion is much more effective.”

By contrast, Mr. Panetta was unimpressed by the former First Lady’s sharpest attack on Mr. Obama, in which she accused him of plagiarism and, in a mocking reference to his campaign slogan, asserted, “That’s change you can Xerox.”

“There should be much less of those kinds of moments,” he said.

In recent days, much speculation has centered on whether Mrs. Clinton’s campaigns is on its last legs. Mr. Panetta, for his part, suggested she could still win the nomination. His words, though, seemed suffused more with hope than with expectation.

“I think everybody felt she was in a very strong position” at the outset of the campaign, he said. “Obviously she is now someone who is the underdog. Everybody is still hoping that she might run the table, but it is a much tougher mountain to climb.”

Panetta's Lament: They Had No Plan