Even Clinton’s Expected Backers Have Been Secret Obama Supporters

Hillary Clinton expected to win the Democratic nomination with little difficulty and was unprepared for serious opposition. I suspect that the discomfort with the degree to which the Clintons acted as if they deserved to be in power, as well as opposition to the lack of principles they exhibit, was far more wide spread among Democrats than the Clintons ever expected. The New Republic has two stories which show that Clinton’s support among her “supporters” was far weaker than she suspected.

The first story involves her endorsement by The New York Times. Although Obama has dominated the newspaper endorsements, an accomplishment of questionable significance, I was not surprised that a New York newspaper would give the endorsement to their Senator. The New Republic reports that this was a split decision:

According to Times sources, the paper almost didn’t back Clinton. The divisions within the Gray Lady’s editorial board mirrored the deep divide that has split Democrats in this tightly contested campaign. The 20-member board had initially leaned toward Obama, Times sources say. But in January, after the board had debated the endorsement in two separate sessions, Times chairman and publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. decided to favor Clinton. Times editorial page editor Andrew Rosenthal, declining to comment on the internal debate, acknowledged that the vote was a difficult one. “It was a really hard one, no question about it,” Rosenthal told me. “We talked about this within our board for hours. It was a very lively, interesting discussion. Several members of the board said it was the best discussion they’ve had.”

As the primary season steams towards Ohio and Texas on March 4, some at the Times are now questioning the editorial board’s judgment. “We’re on the wrong side of history,” one Times staffer said. Indeed, the Times stands apart from the majority of major American newspapers. Obama has racked up endorsements from more than 100 newspapers across the country, including the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune, the New York Times Company-owned Boston Globe, the Newark Star-Ledger, as well as the four biggest dailies in Texas and the Cleveland Plain Dealer. (Here are lists of Clinton and Obama‘s respective newspaper endorsements.) “The endorsement didn’t win me any friends,” Rosenthal admitted to me.

Another article at The New Republic shows that the Center for American Progress, thought to be “an unofficial outpost” for Clinton, was actually full of secret Obama supporters:

Is it any wonder that Hillary Clinton can’t help but occasionally burst into tears? This was supposed to be her year, gosh darn it. She had the money machine, the big-gun advisers, the support of the party establishment, and, of course, the carefully cultivated aura of inevitability. But then along came Barack Obama, and, suddenly, everywhere Hill turns, there’s Mr. Audacity of Hope, flashing that goofy grin and siphoning off the love–or at least the tribute–that was rightfully hers. Obama has wooed away white-collar progressives. And independents. And young people. And the black community (the original Clinton firewall, for crying out loud). Now he’s whipping Hillary in the money race and winning the endorsements of some of the party’s most venerable figures. There’s even talk that superdelegates who had previously pledged their troth to the Clintons are contemplating a change of allegiance. (Witness civil rights icon John Lewis’s recent wavering.)

And, just when you thought the abandonment couldn’t cut any deeper, it turns out that Obama–this upstart, this freshman, this guy no one in Washington had even heard of five years ago–has captured the affections of a Beltway institution widely seen as an unofficial outpost of Team Hillary: the Center for American Progress.

In 2003, when former Clinton White House chief of staff John Podesta introduced the new progressive think tank of which he serves as president and CEO, the assumption among political watchers was that CAP, though technically nonpartisan, would function as the policy arm of the Clinton machine. This sense was fueled not only by Podesta’s long-standing ties to Bill and Hillary, but also by the swarm of Clinton administration refugees drawn to the center (Gene Sperling, Mort Halperin, Matt Miller, Neera Tanden, Gayle Smith, P.J. Crowley, Ivo Daalder, Jeanne Lambrew, Michele Jolin, Thomas Kalil, Shirley Sagawa, Mara Rudman, Joseph Romm, Winnie Stachelberg, Todd Stern, Peter Swire, Daniel Tarullo, Sarah Wartell …). From birth, CAP was not infrequently referred to as the “Clinton White House in exile” or, more specifically, “Hillary’s think tank,” a comfy holding pen where out-of-power wonks could hatch white papers while dreaming of the day when another, blonder Clinton would return them to glory.

If you were an Obama sympathizer in this environment, there were understandable reasons to keep your affections on the Q.T.–either out of respect for differently affiliated colleagues or, as one junior staffer put it, until you could “gauge the temperature” of the office. And that’s exactly what many did. “For months, I thought I was one of the few Obama supporters here, and I just went about my business,” says senior fellow Joseph Cirincione, who agreed last spring to advise the candidate on nonproliferation. It wasn’t until Cirincione started receiving campaign e-mails and noticed the names of other CAP folks on the list that he began talking with colleagues about the race. “It happened through the campaign rather than through office talk,” he points out.

CAP’s Obama contingent got an early boost in February 2007, when Tom Daschle endorsed the insurgent. The former Senate majority leader is a distinguished senior fellow at CAP, and his announcement helped to balance the scales, recalls one research associate: “It added a large degree of legitimacy to supporting Obama for whenever people wanted to come out.” The outing process nonetheless remained gradual, say staffers–until the votes started coming in. “Nothing coalesced until the primaries began and people had to start choosing candidates,” says the research associate. Recalls Cirincione: “We’d be watching TV and see something about the race, and people would smile.” Staffers started taking note of which co-workers smiled when a certain candidate was doing well. “It gradually became clear that more and more of the people who I thought were Clinton supporters were rooting for Obama–and then working for Obama,” says Cirincione. By the week of the South Carolina vote, say CAPpers, it was hard to miss the enthusiasm for Obama, among the junior staff in particular. “You’d see groups of younger people huddled in the hallway asking who was getting rides where [to campaign for Obama],” recalls the research associate.

Today, Team Hillary finds itself faced with a “Clinton White House in exile” completely awash in Obamamania. CAP’s national security team is overwhelmingly pro-Obama, with many members advising the campaign. Executive Vice President for Policy Melody Barnes was an early supporter, while Senior VP for Domestic Policy Cassandra Butts has been an Obama chum since law school. Some veteran Clintonites (such as Smith and Daalder) have joined the revolution.

There was a time when I thought Clinton might win the nomination due to the weakness of her opponents. In retrospect I now wonder if the reverse was partially true. To some degree Obama personally deserves credit for beating Clinton, assuming current trends continue. In addition it now appears that Clinton was much weaker than ever suspected and possibly fated to be beaten by whoever could emerge as the strongest anti-Clinton candidate.

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