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Email controversy revives questions about Clinton’s leadership skills

NEW YORK – Although the controversy over Hillary Clinton’s email is unlikely to damage her chances of reaching the White House, her use of a private account as secretary of state suggests a larger set of concerns about her management approach. How did her staff not warn her about the political and security risks? And why didn’t they protect her more effectively once those risks became clear?

According to New York magazine’s Jonathan Chait, the imbroglio “revives the larger question of whether Clinton is capable of managing a competent campaign (and thus, in turn, a competent administration).” He cites as evidence the turmoil within Clinton’s 2008 campaign, which was widely seen as mismanaged.

But what’s striking about these failures is how different they are. The paradox of Clinton’s leadership style is that she often seems to simultaneously have too many advisers and too few.

In some ways, Clinton has fallen victim to what one might call the Barnacle Theory of American Politics. After being in politics so long, she and her husband, former President Bill Clinton, have accumulated a large retinue of hangers-on, advisers, supporters and sycophants.

As a result, the 2008 campaign bogged down in internal conflicts among numerous senior staff members and consultants operating in the “absence of clear lines of authority,” as Joshua Green reported in the Atlantic. This confusion, which Green says Hillary Clinton failed to resolve, helped undermine the campaign’s response to Barack Obama, who was not similarly encumbered.

Clinton faces similar obstacles during this election. Recent public squabbling among Clinton surrogates prompted David Axelrod, Obama’s former campaign manager, to comment that Clinton’s likely campaign chairman, John Podesta, “has to get control of the Clinton operation,” adding, “I think that’s part of his job over there.”

At the same time, Clinton continues to rely on a small and insular group of close advisers. These trusted staff members help manage supporters’ access and shield her from the ceaseless scrutiny she faces. However, their deep loyalty and close alignment with her worldview appear to have left them ill-prepared for the reaction that news of the private email account would generate. Clinton aides reportedly knew about the account months ago but took no action to release information at a less damaging time. After the news broke, a prominent Clinton aide lashed out at the press – another example of the bunkerlike mentality among her staff.

The too many/too few advisers paradox is reminiscent of management failures in the health care reform effort that she led during Bill Clinton’s first two years in office. That initiative also drew on a large and unwieldy group of staff and outside advisers that spent months preparing “hundreds of memos” in what administration lawyers later described as a state of “creative chaos.” In the end, though, Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton and a small group of aides made decisions about how to proceed under a veil of secrecy while failing to adequately consult with members of Congress.

As a result, they were blindsided by the opposition their proposal faced in Congress, which would ultimately prove fatal.

The importance of staff quality and campaign management in explaining political outcomes is often overstated; Clinton, like all presidential candidates, is largely at the mercy of structural factors like the state of the economy. But her ability to effectively manage the executive branch would matter a great deal on a broad range of policy issues. In that sense, the stakes in this controversy may be far higher than the recent round of “game changer” hype might suggest.

Meanwhile, Clinton on Tuesday defended her exclusive use of a private email address during her time as secretary of state, saying that she did so as a matter of “convenience,” to make life simpler by using one device and one email account.

“I thought using one device would be simpler; obviously, it hasn’t worked out that way,” she said in her first public comments since the issue emerged last week.

She said that most of her emails were work-related, went to government employees and were captured on government servers. Clinton said that the State Department would make public all of her work-related emails, which amount to about 30,000 messages. However, she said that her personal email – about issues such as her daughter’s wedding and the death of her mother – would remain private.

“I feel that I have taken unprecedented steps to provide these public emails; they will be in the public domain,” she said.

Clinton spoke for about 20 minutes during a New York news conference, delivering a statement on women’s issues and denouncing moves by Republican lawmakers to undermine efforts for a nuclear agreement with Iran, before turning to the controversy over her emails.

Expressing a mix of regret and defensiveness over the matter, Clinton emphasized that she broke no laws. “I fully complied with every rule,” she said, adding that no classified material had been sent on her email.

However, she remained steadfast that she would not turn over personal emails and said that those messages in fact had been deleted.

“They were about personal and private matters that I believed were in the scope of my personal privacy and particularly that of other people,” she said. “They had nothing to do with work. I didn’t see a need to keep them.”

The State Department said Tuesday that it would publish online the full set of emails provided by Clinton from her time as secretary of state.

“We will review the entire 55,000-page set and release in one batch at the end of that review to ensure that standards are consistently applied throughout the entire 55,000 pages,” said Jen Psaki, the State Department spokeswoman. “We said we expect the review to take several months; obviously that hasn’t changed.”

A smaller set, about 300 emails that had been provided to the select House committee on Benghazi, will be released earlier to the public.

The State Department also said it would give any reasons for redactions, in accordance with Freedom of Information Act guidelines.

After a week of criticism and questions about the email account, she fielded political questions from reporters, something she had not done since her 2008 presidential campaign.

Early Tuesday, Clinton’s potential opponents had already tried to capitalize on the opportunity to push her off message.

Former Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida sent an email to reporters reminding them of his disclosure of personal emails and provided links to news articles criticizing Clinton for a lack of transparency.

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