This one featured David Axelrod, President Barack Obama’s former top adviser, who logged on to his Twitter account to correct the record against the former secretary of state as she doubled-down on her claim that Sanders had voted against the auto industry bailout.
“She did it again and I’ll say it again. It’s misleading to imply that TARP II was an auto bailout bill,” Axelrod tweeted after Clinton argued for the second consecutive debate that “if everyone had voted as he voted, we would not have rescued the auto industry.”
The unprompted defense of Sanders, from one of the stewards of Obama’s legacy, was as undermining of Clinton’s argument as anything the Vermont senator said on stage to justify his own position. Yet by calling out Clinton on the substance of her attack, Axelrod occupied a role that’s become all too familiar — and all too annoying — to the Clinton campaign.
As a CNN senior political correspondent, host of his own podcast and Twitter junkie, Axelrod has become Clinton’s backseat driver, quick to point out flaws and offer unsolicited advice.
In particular, Bill Clinton — often the easiest person to provoke when it comes to criticism of his wife — has been “very worked up about it,” said a source close to the campaign.
Former Obama operatives, who see Clinton as the candidate most likely to carry on the president’s legacy, have been generally supportive of her bid. Obama’s former campaign manager David Plouffe has been serving as an outside adviser to to the campaign. Former Obama speechwriter Jon Favreau published a column in The Daily Beast, entitled, “Why Electing Hillary in ‘16 is More Important Than Electing Obama in ‘08.” Obama himself has even made comments supportive of Clinton’s bid.
Then there’s Axelrod.
“Kind of bewildering as to why @Hillary Clinton folks are so explicitly, if anonymously, laying out her debate strategy a week out. #Justdoit,” he wrote last October after The New York Times published a story about the campaign’s efforts to make Clinton more relatable.
“Too forced?” He tweeted when Clinton ended a Democratic debate last December with a reference to the blockbuster "Star Wars" sequel hitting the theaters, remarking, “Thank you, and may The Force be with you.”
On television, Axelrod has argued that Clinton's use of a personal email server at the State Department did not show good judgment. And online he has criticized her surrogates for chastising young women who support Sanders as “way off key.”
The running commentary from the operative who helped defeat Clinton in 2008, but then went on to embrace her as part of the Obama administration, manages to get deep under the campaign’s skin.
Perhaps the one that made Bill Clinton the angriest: A tweet last February, in reference to a POLITICO article about internal frustrations with the campaign operation after the blowout loss in New Hampshire — “When the exact same problems crop up in separate campaigns, with different staff, at what point do the principals say, ‘Hey, maybe it’s US’?”
For Clinton allies, the most frustrating part of Axelrod’s constant stream of Twitter commentary is that his 140-character insights, shared with his more than 403,000 followers, often get picked up and make news.
His auto bailout fact-check Wednesday was retweeted 3,200 times, leading Clinton economic advisers like Gene Sperling to counter that “every cent that went to the auto bail out, Sanders voted against.”
In Clinton’s Brooklyn-based campaign, many of her aides feel they have enough on their plates without the sideline kibitzing from a should-be ally. (Axelrod’s nephew, Jesse Lehrich, even works on the campaign as part of her communication’s team; his close personal friend is senior strategist Joel Benenson, whom one Obama insider described as “his brother.”) And some interpret Axelrod’s commentary as somewhat self-serving — at their expense.
In his transformation from top Democratic operative to political commentator, Axelrod has been establishing himself as an objective political observer — an impartial umpire calling balls and strikes — and the most effective and showy way to do that, they think, is to criticize everyone's favorite target, Clinton.
In an email, Axelrod, a former newspaperman, defended his role as an equal opportunity nuisance to all presidential candidates. “I was hired at CNN to bring my expertise to bear on this process,” he said. “In that role, and online, I’ve commented and responded to questions on statements and tactics of all the candidates. I’ve given credit where credit is due, and taken issue where I thought lines have been crossed.”
“To the extent they care,” he said of the Clinton campaign, “I’m sure I’ve probably pleased, and, at times, irritated all of the campaigns. But my intent is only to say what I see.”
Clinton’s communications director Jennifer Palmieri, a veteran of the Obama White House, declined to comment on Axelrod’s commentary.
Some of Clinton’s longtime allies said they have come to accept his new position. “David is a longtime friend of mine,” said Clinton ally James Carville. “He might be saying some things I wouldn’t say, but he’s probably sincere in what he’s saying. He’s got a different role.”
As for the second-guessing of Clinton’s campaign strategy, Carville warned: “Stalin said if you’re afraid of wolves, don’t go into the woods. If you’re afraid of being second-guessed, do something else besides run a presidential campaign.”
Axelrod, a highly respected veteran strategist, has a long and complicated history with the Clintons. Axelrod has known them since Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign, when he was offered the job of communications director but turned it down because of familial obligations. In Hillary Clinton’s 2000 Senate race, Axelrod’s Chicago-based firm worked for the then-first lady and he was a main player in debate prep sessions that often took place in the White House.
But his decision to work for Obama in 2008 was seen as an act of disloyalty. After the election, Axelrod tried offering an olive branch by telling Clinton she had been an able and determined opponent in a long and bitter primary. She later compared the conversation to a “root canal,” according to Axelrod’s memoir.
But underneath the sometimes snarky criticism, Democratic sources said, Axelrod still has respect for the former secretary of state. Any bad blood from the 2008 campaign was put aside when Clinton joined the Obama administration.
The State Department’s recent email dump offered a window into their respectful relationship. In June 2009, after Clinton suffered a concussion, Axelrod emailed her condolences, addressing her informally as “Hillary” and telling her, “you are an all-star player and we need you for the long run!” She replied to him that it was an "honor to serve the President w you."
But he also views her as a candidate who can be too easily persuaded to go down the wrong path. On Wednesday, he seemed to indicate he knows her tendencies, warning that Clinton is “still in control of race & should resist overreacting to MI in debate by either aping @SenSanders or attacking too harshly.”
For the most part, Clinton operatives publicly ignore the unsolicited advice. But sometimes they can’t help themselves.
“In breaking news,” Axelrod tweeted last January, “@HillaryClinton wins full-throated endorsement from her press secretary,” after Clinton spokesman Brian Fallon expressed his general support for his boss online.
Fallon fired back: “As a guardian of the @POTUS legacy,” he wrote, “we know you are rooting for @HillaryClinton, too. You just play a contrarian on TV!”
Author: ANNIE KARNI