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What do hacked e-mails reveal about Clinton campaign?

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Hillary Clinton, shown in Cleveland on Friday, is continually fine-tuning her message.
Hillary Clinton, shown in Cleveland on Friday, is continually fine-tuning her message.Andrew Harnik

WASHINGTON — If it sounds as though Hillary Clinton's current campaign slogan, "Stronger Together," was created by a committee, well, it was — chosen from among the 84 her team considered.

And if you wonder whether the candidate herself is aware that her words sometimes sound as if they have been run through the boring machine, she is.

"HRC just called me and expressed a fair amount of frustration with how things are going," wrote Clinton speechwriter Dan Schwerin in June 2015, referring to the former secretary of state by her initials. "We just keep giving her poll-tested lines that don't work."

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These episodes come from a vast trove of Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta's e-mails, which were hacked by the Russians, according to US intelligence agencies, and are being published in daily doses via WikiLeaks.

The messages, which the Clinton campaign is declining to verify but has not disputed, probably won't deliver the kind of knockout blow to her candidacy that the hackers and leakers apparently hoped for. But they're providing deep insights into how those in Clinton's inner circle operate and some hints about how she might govern if she wins.

They show a staff obsessed with fine-tuning Clinton's image, her every word and move, and agonizing over how to craft a message that will resonate with liberal primary voters while not moving her too far away from the political center that she's inhabited for much of her career.

Clinton's team has been mocked for its micromanaging ways, because it can make her seem inauthentic — a problem the e-mails reveal her campaign fully recognized. But in the end, against Republican nominee Donald Trump, with his poor impulse control and tendency to wing it on the stump and in debates, the campaign's cautious-in-the-extreme approach has served Clinton well.

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Indeed, she showed best in those critical campaign events that demand the most intense candidate preparation and staff work — the debates.

The biggest news in the WikiLeaks files came out of transcripts and excerpts from Clinton's paid speeches. They include Clinton, at a Goldman Sachs-sponsored event, saying politicians "need both a public and a private position" on issues. Behind closed doors, she offered a surprising view on trade and immigration, saying "my dream is a hemispheric common market, with open trade and open borders."

But while the other e-mails made far less news, they collectively provide insight into her operation. The contortions over her stance on trade and the massive Trans-Pacific Partnership deal are among the most revealing items in the e-mails because they provide a window into how she might come down on this issue should she win.

Business interests are already mining the trove, searching for ways she may be persuaded to revert to her initial position of supporting the accord. Scott Reed, a strategist for the Chamber of Commerce, which is pushing the trade bill, said that a "team is on it."

Clinton's record of supporting the trade deal while secretary of state put her in direct conflict with key Democratic constituencies during the nomination process.

"Getting on the wrong side of labor on the only issue they care about has ramifications on the ground in these early states," wrote Clinton strategist John Anzalone on April 2015 in one of the e-mails. "I say we suck it up and be as definitive as possible from the beginning that we don't like these deals."

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US Senator Tim Kaine, Clinton’s running mate, looked at supporters as Clinton spoke during an event in Pittsburgh.
US Senator Tim Kaine, Clinton’s running mate, looked at supporters as Clinton spoke during an event in Pittsburgh.Mary Altaffer

It would be months later, after watching primary opponent Bernie Sanders surge, that Clinton finally said she opposed the deal.

The angst over trade also highlights the campaign's fear of the party's liberal wing, and how Clinton's operatives constantly found themselves trying to balance Clinton's corporate alliances with the growing energy on the left.

Perhaps one of the most stark exchanges came early in March 2015, when campaign manager Robby Mook balked at the idea of Bill Clinton giving a paid speech at Wall Street's Morgan Stanley three days after the scheduled launch of Hillary Clinton's White House bid.

"HRC very strongly did not want him to cancel that particular speech" said Huma Abedin, one of Clinton's longtime personal aides.

Mook replied: "I know this is not the answer she wants, but I feel very strongly that doing the speech is a mistake — the data are very clear on the potential consequences."

In a lengthy plea, Mook added, "I recognize the sacrifice and dissapointment [sic] that canceling will create, but it's a very consequential unforced error.'' In the end, Bill Clinton didn't do the speech.

The e-mails add details confirming what most observers already see in the Clinton campaign: a highly scripted and choreographed organization.

The team batted around the scores of potential campaign slogans that were drawn up by the Benenson Strategy Group, founded by Clinton's pollster. Most sound just as dull as "Stronger Together," the motto that was finally selected.

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The list included: "A better bargain for a better tomorrow," "Building a fairer future today," "A promise you can count on," "Next begins with you," and "Don't turn back."

None have quite the staying power of Trump's "Make America Great Again" or even Sanders' crowd-sourced "Feel the Bern."

Composing a tweet consumed excruciating amounts of energy within the campaign, with one proposed message on the minimum wage prompting at least 37 e-mails among advisers. These notes included proposed talking points for anticipated press questions about the tweet and consideration about whether she should sign it with "— H" indicating it's from her personally.

There was also debate over whether it was a smart idea to add the hashtag #fightfor15. The problem: Clinton didn't support increasing the minium wage to $15 an hour.

There's an upside to such caution. Clinton's laborious practices all but guarantee she won't fire off a 3 a.m. Twitter message, like her opponent did, one that drove negative news cycles for days.

Also the campaign struggled to translate Clinton's pragmatic, deliberative sensibilities into soaring rhetoric. Drafts of the speech she delivered to formally launch her campaign in June 2015 at Four Freedoms Park in New York City bounced around for weeks ahead of time, with strategists offering all manner of advice.

"Haven't read whole thing yet but pulling together latest poll — a line we want her to use and own is 'When America's families get ahead, America moves forward too,' " suggested Joel Benenson, her pollster.

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(Instead, she said this: "When everybody does their part, America gets ahead too.")

At times, Clinton's reputation for running an uninspiring campaign echoed her mistakes from 2008 — and her campaign knew it. They sought advice from President Obama's strategists about how to do better.

"In 2008, we would purposely bait her into playing the wet blanket so we could turn around and whack her for it," wrote former Obama strategist Jon Favreau in an e-mail that was forwarded to Clinton's campaign staff.

John Podesta, Clinton’s campaign manager, spoke to the media Oct. 5.
John Podesta, Clinton’s campaign manager, spoke to the media Oct. 5.Andrew Harnik

Favreau explained how one of Obama's memorable lines from the 2008 New Hampshire primary night speech was a smack at Clinton's propensity for caution. Obama memorably said: "In the unlikely story of America, there has never been anything false about hope."

The line, Favreau said, was a "direct retort" to Clinton's comment that Obama was "giving everyone false hopes."

Clinton's other weakness, her difficulty in making a personal connection with the public, prompted some oddball suggestions from allies.

Jennifer Granholm, the former Michigan governor, wanted Clinton to try working some low-wage service jobs to combat the perception that she is "out of touch" as Granholm put it in a July 2015 e-mail.

Suggestions included having Clinton make hotel beds, clear tables at a Denny's, mop floors in a school, or work in a day-care center or a nursing home.

"She'll see real people. She'll start to understand, truly, the importance of the economic plan she'll be offering on Monday,'' Granholm said in an e-mail to Charlie Baker, one of Clinton's consultants.

Baker's response isn't in the trove of e-mails, but he did forward the idea along to Podesta. Clinton never did it.


Annie Linskey can be reached at annie.linskey@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @annielinskey.