During the 2008 Democratic presidential primaries, Hillary Rodham Clinton emphasized her strength and experience over her softer, more relatable side. Today, she gushes about having "that grandmother glow."
As she lost the nomination to President Barack Obama, Clinton was accused of being wooden and overly shielded by staff members. Last month, she mingled casually at a Manhattan apartment, greeting donors and shunning a podium and rope line.
And in 2008, Clinton’s best asset, her husband, Bill Clinton, became an albatross. Today, the former president has a tough-minded chief of staff from Hillary Clinton’s world who tries to keep close control over his events — and his occasional off-script remarks.
Little by little, Clinton is taking steps that suggest she has learned from the mistakes, both tactical and personal, of her failed candidacy. After more than six years of pundits dissecting what went wrong in 2008, her circle of advisers is beginning to draft a blueprint for a different kind of campaign. And although Clinton has since bolstered her public image while serving as secretary of state, her next campaign will in part be assessed by her ability to avoid the errors of the last one.
"Was it the best managed campaign? Of course not, they lost," Democratic strategist Donna Brazile said of 2008. "But what lessons will they apply to the future if she decides to run?"
Some things have clearly changed: Those close to Clinton now embrace a view that her gender can be more of an asset than a liability. But familiar hazards remain, especially the air of inevitability that seems to surround the Clinton camp, along with the lack of a broader rationale for her candidacy.
"Inevitability is not a message," said Terry Shumaker, a prominent New Hampshire Democrat and former U.S. ambassador. "It’s not something you can run on."
These topics are being quietly discussed at private dinners with donors, at strategy talks hosted by an outside super PAC and in casual conversation as Clinton greets friends at holiday parties and a Clinton Foundation fundraiser in New York.
"If she runs, it will be different," said Clinton’s spokesman, Nick Merrill.
Last month, at a gathering hosted by Ready for Hillary, a super PAC intended to build grass-roots support for a Clinton candidacy, strategists explained to donors over lunch and in presentations that Clinton would need to run in 2016 the way she did after she began to struggle in the 2008 primary season.
By the time the delegate tallies favored Obama, Clinton began to show a vulnerable, less scripted and entitled side. She adopted a message focused on lifting the middle class, and she connected with women and white working-class voters over kitchen table issues. She won primaries in Ohio and Pennsylvania.
"I always found it remarkable that working-class women could connect to her life despite the fact that this is somebody who operated in the highest circles in America," said Geoff Garin, a pollster who succeeded Mark Penn as the campaign’s chief strategist in 2008.
Clinton is keeping a quiet schedule over the next several weeks. She is holding frequent meetings to listen directly to the type of strategic advice that during her last campaign was filtered through a tiny cadre of loyal but sparring advisers.
Most of those advisers, including Penn, still have ties to the Clintons, which makes some of the more than a dozen supporters interviewed for this article wonder whether the personnel problems and infighting that plagued the last campaign could really be resolved in another one.
Ready for Hillary, which since its inception has tried to signal that things must be done differently in 2016, counts former White House aides like Harold M. Ickes, Craig T. Smith and Ann Lewis as advisers. But it also includes Jeremy Bird and Mitch Stewart, Obama organizers whose presence Ickes called "Exhibit A of new ways of doing things."
Obama operatives like Buffy Wicks and Jim Messina have been brought on to run another pro-Clinton super PAC, Priorities USA Action.
"Inner circles change over time depending on the nature of the enterprise," Ickes said. "There are always people with their noses out of joint," he added, but the Clintons "are good at picking people."
Super PACs are ostensibly banned from collaboration with candidates, and Ready for Hillary does not constitute Clinton’s innermost circle. The group, run by a mix of young devotees and older loyalists, will dissolve if she declares her candidacy. But its efforts in the long pre-campaign period, particularly in the approach to data and outreach to young college students, are likely to influence how the official campaign would function.
The group has also helped Clinton keep well-meaning, but distracting, supporters at bay. It is a strategy that Obama adopted in 2007 to make sure that supporters felt useful and included without allowing the candidate to become overwhelmed with advice, as Clinton did in 2008.
Bird called the approach "respect, empower, include" and said, "It’s a consistent challenge all campaigns have."
This is perhaps a bigger challenge for Clinton, given that she and her husband have built an extraordinary network of friends, donors and advisers over their decades in public life, all of whom will be invested in trying to get them back to the White House.
"She will be very careful to make sure there are clear lines of authority and that the people in charge are not in charge because they are old cronies, but because they’re the smartest people to run the campaign," said Richard Socarides, a former White House aide.
In 2008, the smartest person on Clinton’s campaign, her husband, became a liability. Bill Clinton enraged black voters by comparing Obama’s victory in the South Carolina primary to the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson’s 1984 and 1988 victories in the state and called Obama’s anti-war position "the biggest fairy tale I’ve ever seen."
Since then, Bill Clinton has regained his status as the party’s most powerful surrogate, as demonstrated in a blockbuster speech at the 2012 Democratic National Convention. But the former president is also famously defensive, especially when his legacy and his wife are under attack, both of which would happen in a 2016 campaign.
Bill Clinton’s chief of staff, Tina Flournoy, who is close to Hillary Clinton, is trying to keep a careful watch on the former president’s events while closely collaborating with his wife’s office, said several people with knowledge of Flournoy’s approach who spoke on the condition of anonymity to preserve their relationships with Bill Clinton.
Ultimately, though, topics that his office would like to avoid, namely 2016 and any criticism of the current administration, come up.
For example, last month in Little Rock, Arkansas, a Politico reporter, Mike Allen, lobbed a couple of unexpected questions at Bill Clinton after he delivered prepared remarks at the "Playbook Cocktails with Bill Clinton" event.
Clinton made news by questioning whether Obama’s delay on an immigration overhaul affected the weak turnout of Latinos in the midterm elections. Clinton’s team appeared livid with the organizers about the unanticipated questions.
"I had misunderstood the parameters, and I’m very sorry about that," Allen said.
A spokesman for Clinton declined to comment.
People close to Hillary Clinton say she smartly adjusts and moves forward after making errors – whether her heavy-handed approach to overhauling health care as first lady or her remark to ABC News in June that she and her husband were "dead broke" when they left the White House.
Or, as Clinton liked to say in the 2008 campaign, when she warned voters not to be swept up by Obama’s promise to bring hope and change to Washington: "Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me."
Amy Chozick, New York Times