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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Under the Bus

Presidential campaign staff and advisors have certainly been in the news in recent days. Barack Obama’s campaign has been afflicted for two weeks now by heavy media coverage of supposed gaffes by three top advisors: economist Austan Goolsbee and foreign policy wonks Samantha Power and Susan Rice. And reports of vicious infighting in Hillary Clinton’s campaign have long become a staple of political coverage, as illustrated by a front-page piece in today’s New York Times.
Invariably, these “gaffe” and “turmoil” stories, viewed as reflecting poor campaign management, lead to speculation about or even demands for (as in the case of Power) firings. Throwing an aide or advisor “under the bus” to resolve conflicts, control damage, or signal a change of direction, is an ancient ritual in electoral politics, particularly at the presidential level.
Sometimes staff firings or “shakeups” do indeed reflect major strategic considerations. Famous examples include Ronald Reagan’s dismissal of long-time chief strategist John Sears in 1980 after a potentially calamitous loss in the Iowa Caucuses; Al Gore’s “purge” of Mark Penn and other Clinton veterans during the 2000 primaries as a first step towards declaring Gore’s independence; John Kerry’s decision to side with Bob Shrum in a factional fight in 2003, which led to the resignation of Jim Jordan as campaign manager and a slow exodus of some anti-Shrum staffers; and most recently, the 2007 shakeup in John McCain’s campaign, wherein long-time strategist John Weaver hit the bricks.
“Gaffe”- or scandal-related firings haven’t been unusual, either. There was John Sasso’s departure as Michael Dukakis campaign manager in 1988, after Sasso was implicated in the leak of the Biden “plagiarism” story (Sasso returned to the campaign during the general election). And then you had Dick Morris leaving the Clinton re-election campaign in 1996 when the famous toe-sucking incident surfaced. There’s even a direct analog to the Goolsbee “NAFTA-Gate” saga: during the 1992 primaries, Clinton economic advisor Rob Shapiro was (temporarily) excluded from the campaign after Bob Kerrey attacked a New Republic article by Shapiro that in passing appeared to disrespect farm subsidies.
Finally, there’s another hoary convention wherein struggling presidential candidates bring in “senior advisors” to supply alleged adult supervision to faction-torn or disorganized campaign staffs. In a nice twist of fate, this role in John Kerry’s campaign was fulfilled by none other than John Sasso. And in the mini-shakeup that followed the departure of Patti Solis Doyle as campaign manager, HRC’s current campaign brought in Clinton White House political advisers Doug Sosnik and Steve Richitti.
So: there’s plenty of precedent for staff gaffes, turmoil, firings and shakeups, and plenty of evidence that they also mean a lot less than meets the eye. It’s human nature that political writers have a powerful attraction to this kind of story, with all its insider glamor. But it’s important not to confuse cause with effect, and staff or adviser shuffling with the fundamentals of any campaign. Sometimes they matter a lot, but not often.

One comment on “Under the Bus

  1. Jon on

    Well said — a note of sanity missing from so much of the coverage.
    From a strategic perspective, while each of these “gaffes” leads to a [temporary] decrease in effectiveness of a valued advisor, there are also positive outcomes. For example, if the same standards are applied to the Clinton campaign as to Samantha Powers, Mark Woolfson should go. If this happens, the Clinton campaign is weakened, probably more than Powers’ resignation costs Obama; if it doesn’t, then it’s easy to highlight the double standard — especially at a time that the Clinton campaign has put “vetting” so firmly on the table.
    In my essay from last Wednesday The day after: narrative through a lens of strategy on Liminal States, I used the spreadsheet the Obama campaign released in February as a springboard for discussion … I talk about NAFTAgate and the “monster” episode in comments. I’m curious to hear what people think about it!


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