President Barack Obama took over the country in 2008, but he never took full control of the Democratic Party — a state of affairs that became painfully clear this week as the White House struggled to distinguish friends from enemies.
A series of Democrats, most prominent among them Newark Mayor Cory Booker, raised doubts about Democratic attacks on Bain Capital, Mitt Romney’s former venture capital firm. And while Booker was forced into a long, slow, painful walkback of his worries, other figures — like former Rep. Harold Ford — remained unapologetic markers of the party’s independence from its president.
Obama is hardly facing a rebellion. He is broadly popular among Democratic voters, and commands more universal support from Democratic elected officials than Vice President Al Gore did in 2000. But he spent the bulk of his career an obscure, local figure in Chicago; his explosion onto the national scene left him no time to build the sort of national network of allies Bill Clinton spent decades cultivating.
Former Pensylvania Governor Ed Rendell said it would be unfair to compare Obama’s aides to Clinton’s operation.
“You’re comparing them to the gold standard,” Rendell told BuzzFeed. “They’ve done a good job.”
He added, however, that he hasn’t heard of officials getting Clinton-style calls from Obama at 11:30 at night to ask about local issues. That, said a former Clinton aide, is simply a product of how Obama rose to power.
“He’s not as engaged in building Democratic institutions in different states,” the consultant said. “If you think about how he came to beat Hillary and become president, he did not go through typical Democratic institutions — he ceded that to Hillary. Eventually some started to come his way. I don’t know if there’s as much of a reliance on building these operations state by state.”
And Rendell joined the chorus of criticism of Obama’s attacks on finance, whose leaders have written checks to many members of both parties.
“I think they’re very disappointing,” Rendell said of the ads attacking Bain. “I think Bain is fair game, because Romney has made it fair game. But I think how you examine it, the tone, what you say, is important as well.”
As for Booker, “I admire him,” Rendell said. “People in politics should tell the truth. He could have qualified it better, he could have framed it better, but if you’re in this business, none of us like negative ads.”
Other Democrats see the recent tendency of Obama’s nominal allies to go off-book as indicative of the president’s discomfort his role as party leader, and his unwillingness to deploy the power and the trappings of the presidency to wage a nonstop charm campaign with members of his own party.
“I think this lack of skillful outreach to major surrogates and leaders is similar to what has also been viewed as tepid treatment of donors/bundlers,” said one former aide to Hillary Clinton in an email, comparing Clinton’s cadre of professional, type A Beltway schmoozers like former DNC Chairman Terry McAuliffe with the low key likes of Obama aide David Axelrod.
The business of wrangling the broad and complex Democratic universe, in the meantime, has never been easy. Democrats who romanticize the Clintonite past tend to forget dramatic breaks with the left, and even with his own staff, after the 1994 midterm elections.
“It’s an inherently cumbersome thing,” said Michael Feldman, a veteran of the Clinton and Gore campaigns, of managing surrogates. “If you boil it down to every potential campaign surrogate. every mayor, everyone with a platform, everyone who appears before a camera — the universe of potential surrogates is huge. If you count everyone who has a “D” next to their names, I’m frankly surprised it hasn’t happened more.”
Indeed, both campaigns will no doubt find themselves cleaning up again for wayward members of their own parties.
Said Phil Singer, a veteran of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign: “If controlling surrogates were that easy, everyone would do it.”
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