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The “Superstar” Trap

July 20, 2011 5 comments

In the wake of President Obama’s election, it’s easy to forget that in 2007, no one questioned that Hillary Clinton would become the next president. It’s difficult nowadays to remember exactly how far removed she was from all other Democratic contenders. In addition to the qualities that made her the inevitable nominee – name recognition, clout, a campaign war chest – the mere appearance of inevitability brings it’s own advantages: early donations, commitments from precinct captains, general momentum, and most importantly an All Star team of strategists and campaign managers.

Hillary Clinton Campaign Staff

Hillary Clinton’s 2007 Campaign Staff

It’s hard to overstate how much of an effect that last advantage carries. Very few human beings have the experience of running a high-quality national campaign. Those strategists on the A-list are truly superstars in their field. Campaign management is a grinding, heart wrenching trial-by-fire. Many have slogged through losing campaigns for their entire careers before one major win brought them their hard-earned recognition as kingmakers. In 2007, Hillary Clinton had her pick of the very best.

Patti Solis Doyle, a veteran of the Chicago mayoral campaigns and one of the most fervent Clinton loyalists, became the first female Hispanic manager of a presidential campaign. Her deputy, Mike Henry, was one of the key strategists behind the Democratic re-taking of the Senate the year earlier. Mark Penn, the superstar pollster from Bill Clinton’s presidential administration, became Hillary’s personal Karl Rove. Howard Wolfson, a veteran of bare-knuckle New York politics, became the campaign spokesman. Hillary’s campaign COO was a former deputy White House chief of staff. Another of her senior advisers was a former White House communications director. Other notable strategic advisers included famous names like Madeline Albright, Richard Holbrook, Sandy Berger, Wesley Clark, and Geraldine Ferraro.

Harlem Globetrotters versus the Washington Generals

Harlem Globetrotters versus the Washington Generals

Having this team together was the political equivalent of sending the Harlem Globetrotters to do battle with the Washington Generals; not only was the winner apparent before the game ever started, but they would probably be dancing around their opponents and doing trick moves to rack up style points. No other team could possibly compare. Mark Penn alone is in a league of just two other pollsters – Dick Morris and Frank Luntz – whose interpretations are taken as gospel in political circles. Finally, after assembling all this talent in one place, “Hillaryland” was now set to bring about the result that everyone knew was inevitable.

Does anyone remember how that turned out?

If one judges by the endless, ever-tight primary fight that year, we would tend to draw the conclusion that Hillary’s All Star team was simply the victim of bad luck. The nation wanted palpable change, after all, and Mrs. Clinton had been part of American Political Reality for quite some time. And Mr. Obama had run a very disciplined campaign. And he was a superior public speaker, with a charisma and a capability for human connection that Hillary would openly admit that she lacked. And some of Bill’s comments during South Carolina had hurt as well. So maybe her inevitable run for the White House was simply not in the cards.

That conclusion, however, would gloss over the reality that Hillary’s All Star team was broken and dysfunctional from the first day, and did as much to destroy the Clinton campaign than any actions by her primary rivals. According to the book Game Change, by John Hellemann and Mark Halperin, Solis Doyle turned out to be an ineffectual leader who had no clue how to run a national campaign. Before the Iowa caucuses had even concluded, she was contemplating a way for Hillary to gracefully bow out of the campaign. Mark Penn had a secret cabal going with Bill Clinton, and the two of them were running their own private campaign strategy and undermining the rest of the group. The most basic campaign functions went untended. Important ad money didn’t get approved in time. Important phone calls when unanswered. Hundreds of balls were dropped in every conceivable aspect of the campaign. And most importantly, all the campaign executives hated each other’s breathing guts.

What started as an exercise in raw talent – a group that Hillary saw as emulating Lincoln’s cabinet as portrayed in Doris Kearns Goodwin‘s book Team of Rivals – ended in early primary losses, a major campaign management shake-up, and then finally a total implosion. The All Star Team ended up being less than the sum of its parts.

Steve Jobs, of Apple

Steve Jobs, of Apple

We live in an age obsessed with individual talent. We are easily mesmerized by it. America, from its inception, has valued individual endeavor and has sought to afford maximum individual freedom to facilitate expression and achievement. When we look at success, the easiest way to understand it is as a direct result of the individuals most closely associated with it.  Most of our major success stories – Apple, Google, Amazon – have a name and a narrative associated with them. Business leaders and consultants bow to the alter of some Great Innovator – so much so that we could easily call this decade “The Steve Jobs Era.” In sports we put All Star and fantasy teams together in order to pit the absolute best against the absolute best. Even in the entertainment business, the production models are evolving to emphasize superstars. For the last decade, the most excellent scripted shows have been tightly ruled by a new breed of totalitarian “show-runners” (e.g. David Chase for The Sopranos, David Simon for The Wire, Matthew Weiner for Mad Men, Aaron Sorkin for The West Wing, etc.).

All this begs the question – are we right to worship individual talent alone? Does the success of a group merely reflect the sum of the talent of its individual members? Read more…