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. And, among junior staff, Hillary folks are a rare breed. This isn't to suggest there aren't plenty of Clinton devotees still in residence, especially in CAP's upper echelons. But supporters of both candidates say the in-house divide tilts heavily in Obama's favor. (The most equitable guesstimate I heard was a 60-40 split.) The quasi-joke around CAP's H Street offices is that members of Team Hillary now snarkily refer to the group as the Center for Obama's Progress. Responds Podesta with an awkward chuckle, "Oh, well, let's just say that the ... um ... I think I ought to be careful about that one."
It's true that, to some degree, the organization was never the Hillary outpost of Beltway lore. As multiple staffers remind me (all together now!), CAP is dedicated to the long-term advancement of progressive policies rather than to any individual candidate. Non-Clinton experts from the Hill, academia, and other administrations have long called the center home, and Podesta has always been open to colleagues aiding and abetting candidates not named Clinton (on their own time, of course; CAP has no intention of jeopardizing its 501(c)(3) status). Podesta stresses that he "didn't wake up one day surprised that there were a bunch of people here for Obama."
Still, it's hard not to see Hillary's loss of the unofficial CAP primary as a microcosm of her surprisingly tenuous claim on the party establishment. Maybe it loved her in the beginning, or at least felt loyalty to her. Yet the relationship was always a bit codependent for some people's taste, and, along the way, more and more Dems came to see it as unwholesome and costly. Obama may have been an attractive suitor. But he swept into the midst of a marriage that was probably shakier than most people realized.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, CAP's enduring Hillary fans seem less effusive than their pro-Obama counterparts these days. A few are even hesitant to discuss their political preference, as though fearing they'll come across as killjoys at the ongoing Obamapalooza. Noting that most of them have been through contentious primaries before, they emphasize what great relationships they have with their Obama-smitten colleagues and how, in the end, the entire CAP family will unite around the eventual nominee.
Of course, in this ulcer-inducing primary season, that day could be a long way off. And many CAPpers are clearly itching for closure--including Podesta, who informs me that he has approached Obama campaign co-chair Daschle with an ingenious proposal for settling this matter. Forget all the buzz about Super Duper Tsunami Tuesday or Ohio or Texas or Pennsylvania, says the veteran marathon runner: "I'm more focused on April 6, when I've challenged Daschle to race in the Cherry Blossom ten-miler. He can wear his Obama t-shirt. I can wear my Hillary t-shirt ...".
Laugh if you must. But, even six months ago, who would have imagined that Hillary's best shot at winning "her" think tank would come down to two middle-aged superwonks hoofing it through the streets of Washington?
Michelle Cottle is a senior editor at The New Republic.