Clinton Campaign Briefing for Wall Street Donors Turns Into a Gift to Sanders

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Robby Mook and the Clinton campaign should have paid closer attention to the lesson Bruce Braley learned in 2014: The optics of donor events can matter a lot.

Those who read this brief “campaign news” story from the New York Times’ Jason Horowitz early Thursday morning may have missed its significance:

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Robby Mook, the Clinton campaign manager, sat at the head of a conference table in the New York office of Clinton donor and Wall Street investor Marc Lasry, according to accounts from people in the room. Joining them for the state-of-the-race conversation over coffee were members of the campaign’s finance steering committee, including Maureen White, the former Democratic National Committee finance chairwoman, Alan Patricof, Michael Kempner, Robert Zimmerman, Betsy Cohen, Jay Snyder and others.

Mr. Mook told the donors that the outcome in Nevada, a state he ran for Mrs. Clinton in the 2008 campaign, was hard to predict and that, depending on turnout, Mrs. Clinton could win by a lot or win or lose by a tiny margin, according to several donors who requested anonymity to discuss the private meeting. But Mr. Mook stressed that the map leaned in Mrs. Clinton’s favor as the race moved to South Carolina, where he was confident she would win, and that she would do well on March 1, when more states voted.

Mr. Mook told the donors that the outcome in Nevada, a state he ran for Mrs. Clinton in the 2008 campaign, was hard to predict and that, depending on turnout, Mrs. Clinton could win by a lot or win or lose by a tiny margin, according to several donors who requested anonymity to discuss the private meeting. But Mr. Mook stressed that the map leaned in Mrs. Clinton’s favor as the race moved to South Carolina, where he was confident she would win, and that she would do well on March 1, when more states voted.

I’m guessing the Times’ ruthless editors took out “Sadly missing the irony” at the beginning of the next sentence:

The collected fundraisers, who for years have bundled checks for Mrs. Clinton’s campaign, listened approvingly as Ms. White, who seemed especially frustrated, expressed bewilderment that the campaign’s mobilization of grassroots support had been eclipsed in the news media by Bernie Sanders’s criticism of Mrs. Clinton as the establishment candidate representing big money

Donors also voiced some frustration with the lack of media scrutiny of Mr. Sanders, who they said was essentially getting a pass. They pressed Mr. Mook to demonstrate that the Vermont senator’s policy proposals were entirely implausible promises and that his responses to essentially all substantive questions drew on excerpts of his stump speech and rants about the “millionaires and billionaires.”

And here’s the kicker:

One donor also asked Mr. Mook to go after the youth vote. With a straight face, attendees said, the operative took the suggestion under advisement.

Yuk Yuk. Yeah, wish we had thought of that.

Now, anyone who has ever worked for an organization that depends significantly on the largesse of rich and self-important people is familiar with the kind of "input" briefing the Clinton campaign conducted here. It’s mostly a courtesy, and, as in this case, it’s mainly an opportunity for donors to bitch and moan and kvetch and play the amateur political consultant, all the while reminding the unfortunate staffers "briefing" them that they help pay the bills. I’m sure their "advice" to Mook — including the brilliant suggestion that Clinton go after the youth vote — went in one of Mook’s ears and out the other, if indeed he was listening instead of taking peeks at his cell phone. The real problem that should have been anticipated — along with the advisability of meeting in a union hall or the back room of a chain restaurant instead of in a donor’s office on Wall Street — is that some of the donors involved would of course run straight to the Times with the story in order to share with the world their important role in Team Clinton. Robby Mook left Nevada at a critical moment to come brief me, the leak advertised. Suddenly a boring and probably meaningless meeting turned into big oppo fodder for the Bernie Sanders campaign.

And Sanders’s people took the cue. Here’s an excerpt from a Facebook post by the campaign:

Jeff Weaver, campaign manager for Bernie 2016 said, “One of the biggest differences between our campaigns is that Bernie’s campaign does not take its marching orders from Wall Street and big money donors. It’s shameful that the Clinton campaign is parroting attacks at Sen. Sanders that The New York Times has documented come right from her big money backers. Now we are beginning to get a glimpse into what goes on in all those closed door meetings with Wall Street interests.”

I doubt that’s the case, but it’s not like the Clinton campaign can come out and say, This was a dog-and-pony show with no impact on our campaign. So they’ve fed one of the central talking points of the entire Sanders campaign and can only hope it’s a one-day story that everybody forgets. It’s not a bad bet.

Optics matter, sometimes a lot.