Almost a year ago, the top strategists of the big-three Democratic candidates appeared at an event at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. In response to a question from a student about how the Democrats could avoid being Swift-Boated in 2008, Clinton’s chief savant, Mark Penn, argued that his boss had a proven adeptness at hand-to-hand combat against “the Republican machine.” “She knows how they think, she knows how they act, she knows how to defeat them,” Penn maintained. “And I think that experience is absolutely critical to actually winning this White House.”
Seated across from Penn, Obama’s guru, David Axelrod, mournfully shook his head. “Let me just say that I think our aspirations should be, at the end of the day, not to defeat the Republican machine but to rebuild the American community.” Soon enough, Penn, clearly annoyed by Axelrod’s piety, was contending that the records of Obama and Clinton on Iraq were essentially indistinguishable—which, in turn, brought forth a stern rebuke from Axelrod. “I really think it’s important,” he said, “if we are going to run the kind of campaign that will unify our party and move this country forward, that we do it in an honest way, and that was not an honest tactic.”
At the time, it was impossible to know that you were witnessing a crystalline preview of the campaign ahead, illuminating the thematic and substantive contrasts the candidates would draw. It also hinted unmistakably at the potential that the race could turn radioactive at the drop of a hat.
A pollster by trade, the CEO of PR giant Burson-Marsteller by position, Penn is obsessed with carving up the electorate into itty-bitty slices and famous for propounding micro-policies to satisfy their cravings and allay their anxieties. Among many in the Clinton circle, he is regarded with intense suspicion; his feuding with her communications director, Howard Wolfson, and longtime ally Harold Ickes is legendary. “A lot of Clinton people aren’t sure that Penn is really a Democrat—you know, he’s kind of a New York Sun guy,” says one of his clients. “Some of them wouldn’t piss on his head if his hair were on fire.”
Penn defends himself as a champion of the middle class and argues that, as he put it to me, “small policies can sometimes lead to big changes and promote big ideas.” Having helped engineer Bill Clinton’s reelection in 1996 and both of Hillary’s Senate conquests, he enjoys the abiding trust of both Clintons—an unusual position. And for much of 2007, the campaign that he devised for HRC appeared to be working like a charm. Its fundamental premise was her inevitability. Its tactical aims were focused on presenting Clinton as the Democrat readiest to be president “on day one.” Its strategic goal was to neutralize the question that the campaign regarded as her Achilles’ heel: her gender. As Clinton admitted to me, “I really believed I had to prove in this race from the very beginning that a woman could be president and a woman could be commander-in-chief. I thought that was my primary mission.”
But in the weeks before the Iowa caucuses, Clinton began to realize she’d made “a fundamental miscalculation,” she said. “I frankly made a wrong assumption about how to present myself to the country.” Thus her late-stage bid to convince the voters of Iowa that she was human after all, an effort embodied in all its absurdity and desperation by her now-infamous “likability tour”—a tour that kicked off just a matter of days after she’d first gone negative on Obama, announcing, “Now the fun part starts.”
As Clinton was stumbling in Iowa, Obama was on the rise. Far more than Penn, Axelrod, a former Chicago Tribune reporter with thinning hair and a mingy mustache, grasped that the yearning to turn the page would be the central dynamic in 2008—and that this presented an opening for as unconventional a candidate as Obama. Sure, Axelrod allowed, Obama’s CV was meager by traditional standards compared with Clinton’s. But as he explained to me last summer, “The real question is, do we accept this broken paradigm of Democrats and Republicans at each other’s throats? That’s why people are so disillusioned with our politics.”
Axelrod, who once worked not only for Hillary but for Bill Clinton (the phrase “bridge to the 21st century” from WJC’s 1996 campaign was his confection), first met Obama more than fifteen years ago and has been by his side all throughout his meteoric ascent. Axelrod believed that Obama could be the sort of transformational candidate he described, for a number of reasons. Although many of Obama’s positions were conventionally liberal, his pragmatism and incrementalism placed him outside any old-school ideological box. His signature accomplishments—death-penalty reform in Illinois, ethics reform in Washington—reflected a yen for cross-party cooperation. And in Obama’s post-racialism, the whole Kenyan-Kansan thing, Axelrod discerned the makings of a brand with enormous selling power. “Barack is the personification of his own message for this country,” he told the Times. “That we get past the things that divide us and focus on the things that unite us. He is his own vision.”