Hillary Rodham Clinton wants voters to decide the nomination based on who can coolly and competently run the country. She had better hope they don't study her recent campaign too closely for the answer.
Clinton has overseen two major staff shake-ups in two months. She has left a trail of unpaid bills and unhappy vendors and had to loan her own campaign $5 million to keep it afloat in January. Her campaign badly underestimated her main adversary, Barack Obama, miscalculated the importance of organizing caucus states and was caught flat-footed after failing to lock up the nomination on Super Tuesday.
It would be easy to dismiss all of this as fairly conventional political stumbling - if she hadn't made her supreme readiness and managerial competence the central issue of her presidential campaign.
But since she has, a growing number of Democrats are comparing the Clinton and Obama campaigns - their first real exercise in executive leadership - and rendering harsh assessments of her stewardship.
In twin columns in Tuesday's Washington Post, left-of-center columnists Peter Beinart and E.J. Dionne Jr. condemned Clinton's overall management of the campaign and inability to build a durable message and infrastructure. It's a common theme in Democratic circles these days.
"Any time you are involved in a long campaign, there are going to be major substantive and procedural gaffes," says former Democratic Rep. David Bonior, an uncommitted superdelegate who served as the campaign manager to John Edwards. "The question is how a campaign handles those gaffes and how a candidate handles them. And I think it's fair to say that Sen. Obama has handled [his] problems better than Sen. Clinton."
Obama can rightly claim he has run a more consistent, disciplined and technologically savvy campaign. While Clinton has blown though nearly a half-dozen campaign slogans and failed to put concerns about her credibility to rest, he has clung to essentially the same leadership and governing message he outlined in his 2004 speech at the Democratic convention. There has been little drama inside his operation - or at least if there was, it has been kept largely concealed.
"In every campaign, the strategy is important and the day-to-day management is important. And in Obama's case, it's hard not to argue that they have run a great campaign," said Steve Elmendorf, deputy campaign manager for Kerry's 2004 bid and a Clinton supporter. "It's been one of the best-run presidential campaigns in the last 20 years. I think they are focused and disciplined and on message. ... The test of a good campaign is having a plan and keeping an operation on track to execute a plan."
Put simply, Obama has shown he can offer a compelling vision, execute a complicated strategy to convey it and, all the while, keep the ledger in the black. That's not a bad first step to becoming a strong leader.
There is no question he has stumbled in ways that will haunt him in the general election. His handling of the Tony Rezko affair was exceptionally clumsy. It's still puzzling why he was so cozy with a known influence-peddler and why it took so long to make all of the details clear and public.
His relationship with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright - his pastor who railed against America and accused the government of purposely spreading AIDS to kill blacks - is a ticking general election time bomb. For now, though, many are praising his efforts to defuse it and move forward.
"Under different circumstances, that would wreck a campaign if not handled right. And so far, it's not been a mortal wound," said Dennis Johnson, professor of political management at George Washington University. "It seems to me it's been a much smarter-run campaign."
The Clinton campaign, by cntrast, has been marked by strategic missteps, financial uncertainty and personnel drama. Its strengths - a supremely disciplined candidate and remarkable fundraising - have been undermined by other aspects of the enterprise, such as a headstrong, factionalized staff and a spendthrift approach. The conventional wisdom once held that it was Bill Clinton who was chronically improvisational and unable to run a tight ship. That flaw, it seems, runs in the family.
Strategist Mark Penn's ouster was the latest staff dispute to unfold in the media, accompanied by a surplus of finger-pointing and a divulging of private details by aggrieved insiders. The pattern was a familiar one, having surfaced after Clinton's Iowa loss and right before Clinton jettisoned Patti Solis Doyle as campaign manager.
Howard Wolfson, a top Clinton aide, acknowledges that in a campaign, blame ultimately resides at the top. But he also contends that it's important to appreciate the value of a candidate who has the self-confidence to allow dissenting voices within the leadership structure and who accepts responsibility for tough choices - such as ousting longtime friends and advisers when they become ineffective.
"It is fair to say that every candidate is ultimately responsible for what his campaign does or doesn't do," said Wolfson. But, he noted, "The number of times that I've read [of] Sen. Obama blaming his staff for problems in his campaign, I can't even count."
In interviews, several veteran Democratic strategists said the business of running a campaign offers limited insight into a candidate's performance in the White House.
And Clinton's defenders argue that the relatively smooth-running Obama operation obscures the reality that the first-term Illinois senator is an untested, naive politician who showed little spine or genius during his unremarkable four years in the U.S. Senate. Clinton loyalists think the Obama story has a predictable conclusion: He gets torn apart by a ruthless GOP and crushed in the general election.
All of this could be true. But it is also true that a fair measurement of the candidates' leadership skills is their management of their campaign. Easily the largest enterprise they have run in their lives - in February alone, Obama had 1,280 paid employees, at a cost of $2.61 million; Clinton had 935 employees and a monthly payroll of $1.63 million - the campaign reveals flaws and strengths that will only be magnified in the Oval Office.
By David Paul Kuhn and Jim VandeHei
Copyright 2008 POLITICO