Things are never as they seem or as the rumors are told. It was never going to be a Biden Warren ticket according to Barack Obama, and the machinery is working that it wont be Trump Pence either. While there was a real hate and fractured relationship between Obama and Hillary, socialism, justice, rights and progressivism transcends relationships, hence the reason Bernie Sanders moved Hillary more to the left.
Below is quite a read and provides deep in sight into the operatives for which the Republicans may not be fully ready to combat. It is war, but a war that has millions of moving parts and thousands of people. This is actually terrifying and should be for the sake of voters and the future of America.
The summary below explains the FBI/DoJ decision on the email-server investigation, doesn’t it?
Party of Two
Politico: How Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama (with help from Elizabeth Warren) are trying to save the Democratic establishment.
Joe Biden wouldn’t take the hint, and Barack Obama wouldn’t take “yes” for an answer.
It was the fall of 2015, Donald Trump was rocketing up in the polls, Hillary Clinton was already wilting, and there was Obama’s vice president, occupying national center stage in an awkward public display of grief and political vacillation. Biden’s son Beau had died at age 46 that May, and the vice president was coping, it seemed, by throwing himself into a very open exploration of running against Clinton.
To Obama, this was a big, unwelcome problem. He had picked Biden for the ticket back in ’08 because he didn’t want him to run for president again, and besides, he honestly believed Biden would be crushed by a defeat he viewed as inevitable.
Still, this wasn’t personal for the president; it was business. Protecting his vulnerable accomplishments from the GOP wrecking ball and safeguarding his legacy have always been top priorities for Obama, and he had told friends as early as late 2014 that Clinton, for all her flaws, was “the only one” fit to succeed him. If Biden had come to him six months earlier—who knows? But it was much too late, and time to push Biden toward a graceful exit.
The choice was long understood by the president’s confidants. “My supposition always was that when the smoke cleared, he would be for Hillary,” David Axelrod, Obama’s campaign message guru and former White House adviser, told me. “It was just in the air, assumed.” Another former top Obama aide added, “After the 2014 midterms, when he could sense the end … it was like, ‘Who gives me the best chance to win?’”
One of the most important if hidden story lines of 2016 has been Obama’s effort to shape a race he’s not running in an anti-establishment environment he can no longer control. Over the past two years, he has worked quietly but inexorably on Clinton’s behalf, never mind the not-so-convincing line that he was waiting for the Democratic electorate to work its will. He has offered his former rival strategic advice, shared his top talent with her, bucked her up with cheery phone chats after her losses, even dispatched his top political adviser to calm the Clintons during their not-infrequent freakouts over the performance of their staff, according to one of the two dozen Democrats I interviewed for this story.
The one thing he wouldn’t do was endorse her before she cleared the field. And once, when things were darkest after Clinton’s devastating defeat to Senator Bernie Sanders in New Hampshire, Clinton’s staff urged him to break his pledge and rescue her—but his team refused, a senior Democrat told me.
Clinton’s view of Obama is more conflicted, people close to both politicians told me. She has repeatedly said, “I’m not running for Obama’s third term,” while taking pains to emphasize their differences on issues such as free trade and Syria. And she started the campaign committed to earning the nomination without his overt help.
But Clinton has been pulled closer to the president out of mutual self-interest and circumstance as the long primary season has worn on: Both Sanders’ unexpected success and Obama’s 80 percent-plus approval ratings with registered Democrats have forced the former secretary of state into a tighter embrace than she anticipated. Indeed, her campaign’s internal polling showed that one of the most effective attack lines against the socialist from Vermont was his 2011 remark that Obama’s moderate governing record was “weak” and a “disappointment” to progressives.
Clinton and Obama have something else in common: They both failed to anticipate seriously the rise of Trump. Early on, they were looking out for challenges from Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren and Sanders on the left, and Florida Senator Marco Rubio as the most dangerous Republican in the field. But Trump’s ascent has only increased the urgency of the president’s last White House mission. “Mr. Trump will not be president,” Obama declared flatly back in February.
Obama’s ultimate goal in his final year has been strikingly ambitious, according to those I spoke with: not only blocking from office the birther who questioned his legitimacy as president, but preserving the Democratic Party’s hold over the presidency during an era of anti-establishment turbulence. Obama, always one to embrace a grand goal, talks in terms of creating “a 16-year era of progressive rule” to rival the achievements of Roosevelt-Truman and to reorient the country’s politics as a “Reagan of the left,” as one of his longtime White House advisers put it to me.
Which is why Obama first needed to stop Biden, and without seeming like he was trying to. As much as Obama loved him, Biden didn’t fit into the plan—especially when polls showed he would enter the race against Clinton with 20 percent of the Democratic vote.
So for most of last summer, Obama emphasized Biden’s weaknesses, gently jousting with him at their weekly lunches. He dispatched his de facto political director, Dave Simas, to Biden’s office to deliver a steady diet of polls showing a steep uphill climb, while a former Obama communications adviser presented Biden a plan that showed how tough it would be to attack Clinton, a woman Biden had previously praised in over-the-top terms. The most influential naysayer from the presidential orbit was David Plouffe, the disciplined brand manager and architect of Obama’s two White House campaign victories who remains Obama’s political emissary despite his day job on the board at Uber.
Eventually, Obama toughened his tone, telling Biden in a meeting that it was simply too late to run, a former White House aide told me.
But by the end of September, Biden still hadn’t gotten the message (though my sources insist he already was leaning toward no, at the advice of his still-grieving family), and Obama was getting itchy. Plouffe stepped up the pressure on his fellow Delawarean after months of gingerly trying but not succeeding to get Biden to step aside gently.
“Mr. Vice President, you have had a remarkable career, and it would be wrong to see it end in some hotel room in Iowa with you finishing third behind Bernie Sanders,” he said, according to a senior Democratic official briefed on the effort to ease Biden out of the race.
When Biden finally did tell Obama he wasn’t running, on the morning of October 21, the president comforted his veep—then sprinted into action like a man liberated. Within minutes, Obama ordered up a Rose Garden announcement—that same day. Although Obama saw it as a generous way to give his friend a chance to bow out on his own terms, several former White House staffers told me it also reflected Obama’s jitters; he wanted to lock in the decision before Biden had a chance to change his mind.
And with that, Obama and Clinton, rivals-turned-colleagues who had spent eight years perfecting the art of insider deals, assumed they had cleared their biggest hurdle in the Democratic primaries. But this was the 2016 election. Nothing would be easy.
In hindsight, of course, Biden’s departure didn’t end the threat to Clinton’s candidacy; it opened the way for a more disciplined and dangerous outsider to challenge her, a challenge made all the harder to recognize given that it came in the guise of a comically disheveled Vermont independent.
Biden himself signaled the problem at that awkward Rose Garden ceremony, sounding the very populist refrain that would soon bolster Sanders and rattle the best-laid plans of Obama and Clinton. Reflecting a party whose base has been racing left much faster than either the president or his designated successor had realized, Biden used his improvised speech that day—squinting into a low autumn sun as the boss stood nearby, arms folded—for a blunt discussion of all the progressive goals his boss had not achieved, calling for a reorientation of the party toward a simpler message of economic fairness. “We can’t sustain the current levels of economic inequality,” he said. “The political elite … the next president is going to have to take it on.”
A few blocks away, two unassuming barbarians at the gates were sitting in a bar across from the old Washington Post, after being stood up by a pair of reporters who had been diverted to the Biden announcement. Sanders campaign manager Jeff Weaver and strategist Tad Devine gnawed their sandwiches and watched Biden on a flat-screen TV above the liquor bottles, astonished as he hit virtually every element of their own insurgent platform: free public college tuition, a nonpartisan pitch to independents and blue-collar Republicans, a call for purging big money from politics.
“Holy shit,” Devine said. “That’s our message. That’s what we’re running on.”
Everyone seemed to get it. Except Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.
As intuitive as their alliance now seems, there is simply no modern precedent for the 2016 Obama-Clinton political partnership. In the words of one staffer in Clinton’s Brooklyn headquarters, the pairing represents “the historic merger of two historic candidates.”
Americans really don’t like dynastic politics, or the perception that the presidency can be handed off between cronies like a borrowed lawn mower. Just ask Jeb Bush, who learned the hard way that there wasn’t much of a White House market for a third member of his family. The popular perception that the vice presidency (or a top Cabinet position, for that matter) is a steppingstone to the big job is also myth demolished by fact.
Over the past 50 years, two-term presidents have routinely endorsed their vice presidents, and it’s been a mess. Dwight Eisenhower was deeply skeptical of Richard Nixon’s executive judgment and he demurred from issuing a formal endorsement even after Nixon had cleared the field in early 1960. Ike felt no great obligation to rush his decision, and Nixon, a magnet for slights and political side-eye, was bitter, as was his wont, until interred. “If you give me a week, I might think of something,” was the president’s answer when asked to tick off his vice president’s accomplishments. Eisenhower bit his lip and in March 1960 finally offered a stiff endorsement of his party’s nominee.
George H.W. Bush succeeded in winning the White House where other veeps had flopped, and like Clinton, he did so in part by incorporating key elements of his predecessor’s political team. But his relationship with Ronald Reagan was never especially close—Bush had savaged the boss’ tax-cut plan as “voodoo economics” in 1980—and by 1988, the Gipper was diminished politically after the humiliating Iran-Contra scandal and physically fading. Reagan’s endorsement in May, after Bush dispatched televangelist Pat Robertson in a sluggish primary, came almost as an afterthought during a fundraiser for Hill Republicans.
“I’m going to work as hard as I can to make Vice President George Bush the next president of the United States,” Reagan intoned. The Times noted that Reagan had somehow managed to mispronounce his understudy’s name, “as if it rhymed with ‘rush.’”
Bill Clinton, who vanquished Bush after just one term in 1992, was the only recent president emotionally and politically invested in electing his vice president, but Al Gore, fearing a backlash against Clinton’s sex scandals and keen on asserting his independence, famously snubbed the happy warrior’s offer to barnstorm in battleground states on his behalf. Many of the Democratic staffers who worked that campaign (including Tad Devine) believe Gore might have prevailed in the Electoral College had he embraced the boss—whose popularity ratings were a stratospheric 70 percent, post-impeachment.
Clinton, deeply hurt, has never entirely forgiven Gore, and later told his biographer Taylor Branch that Gore was living in “Neverland” to think he’d be a liability. When the two families appeared onstage together during an awkward endorsement event in August 2000, President Clinton had to pull Hillary into the frame with the Gores, the first lady looking less than thrilled amid the blizzard of confetti. She never forgot that moment, and has told people around her, time and again, that she didn’t intend to repeat Gore’s sin of pride. (The ambivalence is apparently mutual. As of mid-July, Gore was perhaps the only major Democratic figure yet to endorse Clinton.)
By comparison, her relationship with Obama has strengthened over the years, sealed by their shared White House experiences, like the tense deliberations over the raid that killed Osama bin Laden and Obama’s 2012 reelection, when Bill Clinton cast aside his resentments to deliver the capstone nomination speech in Charlotte, North Carolina.
They still make an unlikely pair, so friendly today that it’s hard sometimes to remember their 2008 primary campaign was one of the longest and most competitive in Democratic history, and that both sides accused the other of dirty tricks. The tone was set early when a prominent Clinton supporter in New Hampshire questioned whether Obama had really stopped using drugs at the young age he claimed in his memoir. When Clinton approached the then-Illinois senator on the tarmac of a D.C. airport to say she had nothing to do with the attack, Obama angrily accused her of planting stories about him in the press—including the claim that he was secretly a Muslim—and what previously had been a frosty détente devolved into a shouting match.
Clinton’s millions of primary votes, celebrated in her career-defining “Glass Ceiling” speech when she dropped out of the race in 2008, and her canny team-player approach as secretary of state secured her future leverage with Obama. Still, the early going was rough as Clinton pushed to carve out her own empire within the administration. The West Wing even tried to blackball two of her closest aides—communications adviser Philippe Reines and Capricia Marshall, a Clinton confidante tapped as director of protocol—until the secretary’s top aide, Cheryl Mills, personally wrangled a deal with Obama fixer and future White House chief of staff Denis McDonough.
Those battles seem like ancient history now. But Obama’s people still tend to have a Barack-first sense of loyalty. (One high-ranking current Clinton aide keeps a life-sized cardboard cutout of the 44th president in his office as a talisman.) And the old Hillaryland crewmembers (Mills, Marshall, Huma Abedin) remain ferociously pro-Hillary.
Over the years, the two staffs have inevitably melded into something the Republicans envy, though: a core team of 100 or so professionals who form the functioning heart of the national Democratic Party, working mostly in harness—a product of eight years in power and three campaigns’ worth of collaboration. These days, the big worry isn’t about division but excessive togetherness, a blurring of the lines between the presidency and the campaign (duly noted by the White House counsel’s office, which churns out advisories defining legal protocols for communication and coordination in keeping with the Hatch Act).
But it’s hard to police all the checkpoints, especially when friends on both sides are kibitzing in a bar or at a birthday party. And almost all the key players in Clinton’s Brooklyn high command have served time in both camps. John Podesta, the campaign chairman, was Bill Clinton’s last White House chief of staff, informally advised Hillary Clinton in 2008 and headed back to the White House in 2013 as Obama’s senior in-house strategist—with the caveat that he would hop back over to the Clintons the minute they set up the campaign. Campaign communications director Jen Palmieri, a former Podesta deputy, held the same job in the Obama White House. Clinton’s top strategist Joel Benenson was Obama’s pollster—and Clinton ad-maker Jim Margolis was part of Obama’s Chicago mafia.
Sometimes, it seems like family tree software would be useful: Take Brian Fallon, Clinton’s press secretary, who worked as Attorney General Eric Holder’s flack before joining the campaign, is married to Obama’s former legislative affairs director and interacts frequently with his West Wing counterpart Eric Schultz, a Clinton alum who preceded Fallon on Chuck Schumer’s Senate communications staff.
Planning for the campaign began in mid-2014, when Cheryl Mills began reaching out to potential Clinton staffers in the West Wing, while Clinton’s State Department aide-de-camp Jake Sullivan began putting together a compendium of policy options for the wonky would-be candidate.
A parallel effort to gear up for 2016 was emerging in the White House. Three years after eliminating his scandal-prone political office, Obama essentially reconstituted it under a new name and tapped a chipper veteran campaign organizer, Simas, to act as his point of contact with the campaigns.
The most important early meeting, in terms of both symbolism and synergy, was in late 2014, when Plouffe, acting with Obama’s blessing (and a mandate to report back), sat down with Clinton in her Washington mansion to map out his vision of her campaign.
Plouffe, a low-key, data-obsessed strategist who made his name as the architect of Obama’s two campaigns, had been one of the last anti-Clinton holdouts in 2008, and he was also the party’s most-respected electoral engineer. He was dispatched with Obama’s explicit intention to help “stand up” Clinton’s effort, according to a person involved in the planning. But he took to the Clinton cause with the zeal of the converted and would emerge over the following 18 months as a surprisingly hands-on campaign operative, coaching Clinton’s young staff during free time.
“Plouffe is everywhere. You can’t see him, but he’s everywhere,” a Clinton aide told me during the Iowa caucuses this winter.
At that first meeting with Clinton, Plouffe laid out a set of imperatives to deal with the shortcomings of her ’08 effort: She needed to assemble a first-rate analytics, targeting and data team; limit the freakouts and impulsive personnel changes; and hire (as well as empower) a steady, technically proficient campaign manager. He threw his support behind the leading candidate, a thirtysomething party stalwart named Robby Mook, who had run Terry McAuliffe’s successful campaign for Virginia governor. Clinton was already sold on a lower-drama campaign (even if she didn’t always practice what she preached).
But if her campaign organization started out on a more solid footing than in 2008, there remained a political problem on Clinton’s left that neither she nor her White House friends fully grasped. They didn’t anticipate the populist uprising that hit both parties, and missed the Sanders revolution until it was nearly too late, in part because they were so focused on eliminating what they saw as a far more dangerous threat on the left, Elizabeth Warren.
The 67-year-old former Harvard professor had long maintained that she wasn’t running, but no one in Brooklyn or the White House quite believed her. That concern spiked to panic in October, when Clinton lavishly praised Warren at a campaign event—“I love watching Elizabeth give it to those who deserve to get it”—only to get a cold shoulder from the senator, who barely acknowledged her presence.
So as Obama’s team was jockeying behind the scenes to maneuver Biden to the sidelines, Clinton’s aides were desperately doing all they could to keep Warren happy and prevent her from joining forces with Sanders.
Luckily for Clinton, Warren resisted Sanders’ entreaties, for months telling the senator and his staff she hadn’t made up her mind about which candidate she would support. For all her credibility on the left, Warren is more interested in influencing the granular Washington decisions of policymaking and presidential personnel—and in power politics. Warren’s favored modus operandi: leveraging her outsider popularity to gain influence on the issues she cares about, namely income inequality and financial services reform.
“Elizabeth is all about leverage, and she used it,” a top Warren ally told me. “The main thing, you know, is that she always thought Hillary was going to be the nominee, so that was where the leverage was.”
Warren, several people in her orbit say, never really came close to endorsing the man many progressives consider to be her ideological soulmate. She made a point of meeting with Sanders to hear his pitch and continued checking in. But she prioritized opening a channel to Clinton on policy. Warren’s personal relationship with Clinton was originally frosty (she was irked by Clinton’s support for a bankruptcy bill more than a decade earlier). And while the pair have never developed an easy rapport, they did develop a working relationship, thanks in part to their mutual friendship with a shared consultant, longtime Clinton hand Mandy Grunwald. In early 2015, Warren sent a major signal that she would ultimately endorse Clinton, telling a senior campaign aide, “I’m getting a lot of pressure to endorse Bernie, but I’m not going to do it.”
Clinton made it clear through those back channels that she planned to move in Warren’s direction on several key issues. Her first step: consulting Warren on a bill she had sponsored jointly with liberal Wisconsin Senator Tammy Baldwin that would prevent private-sector executives from receiving big bonuses before heading into government service. Clinton endorsed the measure months later than Sanders did, but Warren told a friend that she was satisfied with Clinton’s “progress” on the issue and hoped to keep pulling her in the right direction.
Here was a textbook example of Warren’s chess-game approach: The bill, which never had a chance of passing the GOP-controlled Senate, was partly intended to handcuff Clinton if she was elected, weeding out many top finance executives who demanded big payouts before entering the public sector.
Warren made her agenda plain to Clinton when she earned her own tea-and-tactics invitation to Clinton’s Washington home in December 2014—a stilted meeting that left Clinton annoyed and put upon, according to one top Democrat. Warren was in a feisty frame of mind, and had just announced her opposition to the appointment of Lazard banker Antonio Weiss to a top Treasury post. West Wing staffers were infuriated by her decision, but Clinton, differentiating herself from Obama’s team, was more receptive. And when Warren pointedly pressed Clinton not to appoint Wall Street-friendly officials, Clinton didn’t appreciate the full-court press, but she signaled her general agreement, according to a person in Clinton’s inner circle. It was hardly a coincidence that, that spring, she named a key Warren ally, Gary Gensler, a former federal regulator loved by the left for his clashes with Obama’s Treasury Department, as her campaign’s chief financial officer.
None of this was quite enough to push Warren into an early endorsement. Support for that position came from an unexpected quarter: In an early 2015 conversation, Biden counseled the Massachusetts senator to hold off on endorsing Clinton until after the primary, according to a Democrat briefed on the interaction.
Ultimately, it was Donald Trump who brought the two women politicians closer together. Warren (“Pocahontas” in Trump-speak) detests the GOP candidate on a deeply personal level as a racist and sexist. And even though she harbored doubts about Clinton’s ideology, Warren viewed the former secretary of state as a fighter, and opined to friends that Clinton would make a tougher-minded negotiator on all kinds of deals than the comparatively easygoing Obama.
By late spring, Warren and Clinton were talking on the phone from time to time, lamenting the timidity of Democrats still reluctant to bash Trump and agreeing on the gut-punch approach Warren would soon use in a series of Facebook posts that garnered millions of views. (Clinton and her team were especially tickled by Warren’s description of the GOP nominee as “a small, insecure moneygrubber who doesn’t care about anyone or anything that doesn’t have the Trump name splashed all over it,” I was told.)
Warren’s effectiveness as a punch-thrower played a critical role in the Clinton campaign’s late-May pivot away from fighting Sanders to taking on Trump directly. Warren wasn’t initially a serious candidate for a vice-presidential slot, people close to Clinton told me. But her late-in-the-game performance has changed that, and she warmed to the idea after initially viewing it as just another leveraging tool, according to senior Democrats.
Mutual self-interest as much as anything dictated it. Clinton admired Obama’s team, but she was still convinced that in 2008 he had benefited from unfair advantages like a cheerleading press and undemocratic small-state caucus system that slighted her strength among big-state Democrats. “It was important for her to do this on her own,” one top 2008 Clinton adviser told me.
But the president’s team had little doubt on substance—even if timing was an issue. Plouffe, in particular, was determined to preserve the tarnished ’08 hope-and-change brand, and he and Obama shared the opinion that Sanders simply didn’t have the bandwidth or willingness to compromise his job required. (When I asked Obama in January whether the 74-year-old senator reminded him of himself in 2008, the president quickly shot me down: “I don’t think that’s true”).
Still, Sanders’ direct call for a revolution had chastened Obama, and he was intent on keeping to the no-endorsement deal. Clinton’s team had no problem with that—until her lackluster Iowa and New Hampshire performances, which induced a collective anxiety attack among some of her team in Brooklyn.
In mid-February, three officials with direct knowledge told me, Podesta approached Plouffe and McDonough to float an idea: If Clinton somehow managed to lose the upcoming Nevada caucuses, which had been unthinkable weeks earlier, would Obama offer his endorsement to stop Sanders’ momentum? It was clearly an act of desperation—“a break-glass and push-the-panic-button moment,” in the words of a Democrat close to the situation—and Obama’s team quickly vetoed it. Plouffe said the endorsement wouldn’t help—in fact, he said, it would be “counterproductive”—prompting a backlash that would swamp both the president and his chosen successor. Podesta, a four-decade veteran of campaigns and White Houses, wasn’t pleased, but he conceded the point; it’s not clear if Clinton or Obama even knew about the idea at the time, several aides told me.
The question turned out to be moot; Clinton won a 5-point victory in Nevada and established a pattern of solid performances in diverse big states (with Sanders winning in mostly white states, caucuses and open primaries where independents could vote).
The White House did have a counter-offer: Obama would consider making an early announcement if Clinton wrapped things up during the March 15 primaries. But that deal died when Sanders won Michigan unexpectedly on March 8, upending the race.
As clear-eyed as Obama has been about Clinton, some campaign-season friction has been inevitable. The arrangement is inherently schizophrenic: Clinton’s team wants Obama’s support when they need it most, while demanding the latitude to break with him whenever they need to get out of a political corner. On some issues, it hasn’t mattered much. Sources told me Obama waved off Clinton’s more hawkish stance on intervention in Syria (she has suggested supporting a no-fly zone, something he has rejected), and that he didn’t much mind when she vowed in Iowa last October to “go beyond President Obama” in pursuing immigration reform.
But he’s been deeply frustrated by her machinations on free trade, an issue he views as the final big-ticket legislative priority of his presidency. And he expressed anger over Clinton’s tortured decision to reverse her support for the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal. At the time, he told one visitor to the Oval Office that he viewed it not only as bad policy but “bad politics,” because it would reinforce the impression, pushed by Sanders, that Clinton was an opportunistic flip-flopper.
The flashpoint came in June 2015, when Clinton told Nevada political reporter Jon Ralston that she would have voted against “fast-track” authority for the trade deal—the very procedural tool Obama was hoping to use to hammer through the deal against a growing populist backlash. Obama’s complaint was that Clinton, who was speaking off the cuff, hadn’t given him a heads-up before trumpeting such a major break with him on policy. The president was furious and—as polite principals do when they don’t want to berate other principals directly—he transmitted his displeasure to McDonough for broadcast to Hillaryland. The man tasked with blunting that anger was none other than Podesta, McDonough’s longtime jogging partner, the man who had hired him at the liberal Center for American Progress and McDonough’s tutor in the use of executive power in the West Wing.
Still, Obama and his team kept their eyes on the bigger prize—Clinton’s election—and sweated right alongside her team when she swooned in January and February. Obama, who boasted about not watching the debates to stick with TV hoops, never lost confidence in Clinton. But no one better knew her weaknesses, and he watched Sanders’ rise with alarm and a tinge of admiration for the septuagenarian’s out-of-nowhere challenge to the system. The shocker came in late January, one senior Democrat told me, when Simas offered him a readout of internal Democratic polling showing Clinton in serious trouble. “She could actually lose this thing,” Simas said.
There wasn’t a lot the White House could do at that point. But Plouffe, acting in his dual role as an Obama operative and shadow strategist, developed a close mentoring relationship with Mook, whom he viewed as a clear-headed team builder. During the Iowa caucuses, Plouffe, who had helped implement Obama’s innovative voter targeting there, was talking to Mook several times a day, offering tactical advice and encouragement, according to people close to the campaign. And he counseled his protégé to make what would turn out to be one of the campaign’s best hires: Obama veteran Jeff Berman to quarterback Clinton’s delegate operation.
Plouffe wasn’t the only one working the phones. Obama, according to aides, also dialed through to Clinton on several occasions to offer encouragement and a little heartfelt if obvious advice. “Loosen up and be yourself,” he told her during one long post-New Hampshire call, counseling Clinton to ditch the laundry-list speeches and mix in “some poetry with the prose,” in the words of one aide.
If Obama’s early commitment to Clinton had any downside, it was the sense of inevitability, of complacency, that it fostered, the notion that anybody could control a process that was rapidly being taken over by outsiders and insurgents. “We caught them flat-footed,” Sanders campaign manager Jeff Weaver told me.
And it was true: Both Clintons had initially dismissed Sanders’ candidacy as a long shot. “He’s a socialist!” she had said incredulously when someone in late 2015 suggested that Sanders’ message was taking root. And while Clinton herself would point the finger at her pollsters and consultants for failing to anticipate his rise until last December, the fault ultimately lay with a candidate who later told me she preferred to deliver long, policy-packed speeches to pithier calls to battle.
Sanders, who vaulted from less than 3 percent in national polls in early 2015 to a dead-heat by April 2016, turned out to be Clinton’s equal in debates, exposing all the flaws that had dogged Clinton as a candidate eight years earlier—the wooden delivery, the deliberative poll-tested position papers, the focus on incremental progress—when her opponent was electrifying crowds with promises of seismic (if hard-to-implement) change.
But the key thing both Obama and Clinton missed was that responsible liberal governance connected to economic elites—the essence of their partnership—had simply faded from fashion. In their early, scrupulously civil debates, both Sanders and Clinton repeatedly emphasized how similar their stances on major issues were. But as he caught fire—and Clinton shifted on issues like Social Security, trade and Wall Street regulation to meet his challenge—Sanders shifted to a broader, more incendiary anti-establishment argument that focused on what Clinton represented as opposed to the positions she adopted.
And what really sustained him was his positive message of generational change, liberally borrowed from Obama’s 2008 campaign, and broadcast to his faithful through a series of iPhone-friendly videos. Sanders continued to emphasize policy disagreements, especially on foreign affairs, but what drew the 15,000-student crowds were his shout-himself-hoarse denunciations of Clinton’s connections to financial elites; his repeated attack on her six-figure Goldman Sachs speaking fees was the most effective attack line of the campaign, his advisers say.
“They are a historic pair, and they have a lot of power when they work together,” argues a top Sanders ally. “But if they want to motivate the party, if they want to beat Donald Trump, if they want to excite voters, they need to get into Bernie’s space—and fast.”
Still, it’s possible to over-learn the lessons of Sanders’ success. As senior Clinton advisers rightly point out—except for the February scare and an unexpected loss a month later in Michigan—Clinton won the overall primary season convincingly, with 55 percent of the vote, a bigger lead in pledged delegates than Obama ever enjoyed in ’08 and 3.5 million more votes than Sanders.
Besides, predictions that Sanders voters wouldn’t unite around Clinton haven’t, so far, proven any more accurate than predictions that Clinton voters wouldn’t vote for Obama. Ahead of the Philadelphia convention, only about 8 percent of Sanders supporters said they’d back Trump in the general election, according to a June Washington Post-ABC News poll—compared with 20 percent of Clinton supporters who planned to vote for Republican John McCain in 2008. By contrast, recent surveys have shown 70 percent of Ted Cruz voters have negative views of Trump.
Exit polls for the early 2016 primaries tell an even starker story about the relative health of the parties heading into the fall. A majority of Republicans said they felt “betrayed” by their party—the rage that fueled Trump’s candidacy—compared with less than a quarter of Democrats who shared that sentiment. “The biggest misnomer of the campaign is that everybody’s pissed off,” Clinton strategist Benenson told me in March. “The truth is that Republicans are way, way more angry than Democrats. And Democrats love Obama.”
The party does seem to be uniting, as Sanders’ awkward but emphatic enough endorsement of Clinton in early July proved. But the protracted, weeks-long three-way negotiations among Clinton’s, Obama’s and Sanders’ political teams over the Democratic Party’s platform showed something: that the Clinton-Obama table for two may need a new place setting.
Sanders, who took a long time to accept the reality of his primary defeat personally, squandered some of his leverage. But in the end, the Clinton camp was eager to give him almost everything he asked for in the Democratic platform by agreeing to embrace a new proposal to subsidize public college tuition, a public option for Obamacare and a break-up-the-banks plank.
The final hurdle to kumbaya was a deal that embittered, or at least annoyed, all three parties.
Obama, knowing Clinton and Sanders had bucked him on free trade, lobbied hard to shoot down an anti-Trans-Pacific Partnership provision in the platform during a series of party meetings in Orlando in early July. The uncompromising Vermont revolutionary would have to compromise—and he did—by accepting the pro-TPP plank debated during the Orlando meetings. When the deal was done, Sanders called his team from his house in Vermont and declared, in his matter-of-fact, ordering-at-a-diner voice, “Well, we just created the most progressive platform in the history of the Democratic Party.” And then he said goodbye and hung up.
Yet until the very last moment, Clinton’s jittery team couldn’t quite believe Sanders was really on board, seizing on a rumor that he was boarding a plane to Florida to blow up the final agreement.
Never mind that everyone on the Sanders campaign laughed it off. The calls from Brooklyn kept coming—“We’re hearing he’s on the plane right now!” —until one close aide to the senator bellowed into his phone, “Godammit, Bernie’s in Burlington, and he’s staying in Burlington!”
The senator was good to his word. The next time Clinton’s team saw Sanders, he was sharing a stage in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, with his party’s presumptive nominee—and declaring himself a loyal Democrat in Clinton’s anti-Trump crusade.