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Low Profiles Make a Winning Team

Tevi Troy

We’re already starting the next presidential campaign. Political insiders are making predictions about who will run and which campaigns are ahead in the all-important “staff primary”: the race for talented personnel who help shape the outcome.

The glitz and glamour of loud, well-known personalities are tempting, but history recommends caution. To win the staff primary, talent scouts from both parties should look to campaign aides with strong work ethics — and low profiles.

In 1937, the Brownlow Commission recommended to President Franklin D. Roosevelt that he needed White House aides with a “passion for anonymity.” This advice may be even more necessary when it comes to political campaigns.

If failed campaigns past teach anything, it’s that the higher the staffers’ profiles, the worse they do at achieving the goal: getting their candidate elected.

Sen. John Kerry, for example, hired in 2004 what seemed to be an all-star team from previous Democratic campaigns. These well-known, well-connected aides quickly fell into factions based on which candidate they had previously worked with.

The most telling story involves the well-regarded former Hillary Clinton press adviser, Howard Wolfson. He joined the Kerry campaign on a Monday morning, Newsweek reported. But he confronted so much internecine warfare that he went out to lunch on Wednesday and never came back.

The George W. Bush 2004 campaign staff strongly contrasted with Kerry’s team. Though the Bush team had its share of infighting, disagreements stayed out of the press. No one beyond the campaign manager, Ken Mehlman, had much of a public profile, which helped when things got heated. There was one incident in which a high-ranking official resigned and then returned to the campaign — and it never appeared in the press.

This team mentality was important to Bush, and it became a very conscious goal for his campaign team. In Karl Rove’s recent book, Courage and Consequence: My Life as a Conservative in the Fight, he writes that Mehlman had suggested that key campaign and White House aides read the Michael Lewis book Moneyball.

Mehlman said this story about building a winning baseball team might offer some insight into how to build a campaign staff. Mehlman had the Bush campaign adopt the same approach to talent as Lewis’s protagonist, Billy Beane, used with the Oakland Athletics. “His players didn’t hit as many home runs or put up gaudy stats that got public attention,” Lewis writes. “But each team member’s talents knit well with the rest of the team and made them formidable as a unit on the field.”

Republicans don’t have any monopoly on humility or teamwork, however. Far from it.

In 2008, some of these unknown 2004 Bush staffers, like Steve Schmidt and Nicolle Wallace, had developed higher profiles after working in the White House. When some moved to the John McCain campaign, they were embroiled in the game of speculation about leaks between the pro-Sarah Palin faction and the anti-Palin faction.

The fact that these aides were now better known — and had better media contacts — exacerbated whatever internal disagreements the media caught hold of.

This was a problem for Democrats in the 2008 primaries as well. Hillary Clinton’s campaign was beset by very public rivalries among big-name aides like Mark Penn and Harold Ickes. The Clinton team was “battling itself,” The Washington Post reported, quoting one of the more enlightening dialogues between the two men as follows:

“[Expletive] you!” Ickes shouted.

“[Expletive] you!” Penn replied.

“[Expletive] you!” Ickes shouted again.

Clearly, all was not smooth sailing in Clinton land. That this exchange showed up in the Post also meant that someone on the inside had a relationship with the reporters to begin with.

Barack Obama’s 2008 team, in contrast to both Clinton’s and McCain’s, was filled with lower-profile staffers, which could be one reason for its much more successful campaign. Many people now know the names of David Plouffe and David Axelrod, but they did not have high name recognition before the 2008 campaign.

For 2012, Obama could face more of a challenge if he brings back the same — now higher-profile — aides to run his reelection effort. On the one hand, they know him best and helped get him where he is. On the other, they now have power, reputations and a host of personal connections to journalists, bloggers and media outlets.

The Republican challengers will probably not face this particular challenge. But as they gear up for 2012 campaigns, they should heed the lesson of previous failed efforts. Young, hungry and anonymous staffers working as a team consistently beat all-star collections. Any candidate thinking of running should keep this in mind.

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