Hirsh: Battle for the Best and Brightest

Presidential candidates seem to be getting shorter honeymoons these days. Maybe it's because they deserve it. Consider the fate of Fred Thompson, who found himself mocked by his GOP rivals within hours of jumping into the race. Thompson—who has spent more time playing a prominent government official than being one—seems to think the first GOP primary is taking place in Hollywood; he announced his candidacy Wednesday night on the Leno show, of all places. Also this week, Barack Obama, who was still considered a fresh face only a few months ago, was savaged by New York Times pundit Maureen Dowd for trying to play the oldest populist trick in the book: that of an insider politician posing as an outsider. Lagging badly in the national polls, Obama has put up a new ad in Iowa portraying himself as a reformer who has taken on "the powers in Washington." The Illinois senator aimed a direct barrage at his chief rival, Sen. Hillary Clinton, announcing at a town-hall meeting in suburban Des Moines this week that "there are those who tout their experience working the system in Washington, but the problem is that the system in Washington isn't working for us."

Dowd is right: Obama's ridicule-the-system rhetoric doesn't ring true, especially on the central issue in the campaign, foreign policy. Why? Because while Obama is still seen as the insurgent candidate challenging Hillary's Democratic establishment camp, he has actually been recruiting ex-Clintonites in large numbers. Behind the scenes, Obama and Hillary have been engaged in a vicious battle for the best and brightest officials of the 1990s, those who mastered "working the system in Washington" a decade ago. The competition has grown so fierce that several Obama officials who were once Friends of Bill tell me they have been threatened with becoming pariahs by the Hillary camp if she wins the nomination. In response, the Obama campaign has only revved up its recruiting effort of midlevel former Clinton officials. "The Obama pitch is, 'You'll never be in the inner circle' with Hillary," says Gene Sperling, Sen. Clinton's top economic advisor.

A group of prominent former senior officials in Bill Clinton's administration are informally working for Obama by taking charge of his advisory groups on different regions and issues. Among them: Richard Clarke, the counterterrorism czar from both the Clinton and Bush administrations; Jeffrey Bader, the Mandarin-speaking former director for Asian affairs on Clinton's National Security Council and assistant U.S. trade representative; former Mideast envoys Rob Malley and Dennis Ross; and the recently retired career CIA official and former Clinton-era National Security Council expert on South Asia, Bruce Riedel. Obama has also managed to recruit a large number of former junior and midlevel Clinton officials, especially many who served on Clinton's National Security Council. Among them: Mona Sutphen, Sandy Berger's former special assistant; ex-Clarke deputy Roger Cressey; former NSC Russia director Mark Brzezinski; Sarah Sewell, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense; and Philip Gordon, a former Clinton NSC director for Europe. (Some of these officials, like Riedel, Ross and Malley insist they are giving advice to anyone who asks, including Hillary.)

The more experienced Hillary Clinton, meanwhile, has relied largely on her husband and a triumvirate of senior officials from his presidency—former secretary of state Madeleine Albright, former U.N. ambassador Richard Holbrooke and former national-security adviser Sandy Berger (who tries to keep a low profile after pleading guilty in 2005 to misdemeanor charges of taking classified material without authorization). Hillary also consults with an informal group of 30 less prominent advisers. But she has shown increasing anxiety over Obama's active recruiting effort—so much so that she recently hired Lee Feinstein, a prominent and well-connected scholar at the Council on Foreign Relations, to launch an "outreach" program similar to Obama's. Perhaps the hardest loss for the Clintonites is Greg Craig, the former lawyer for President Clinton who, along with former Albright protégée Susan Rice, a Clinton-era assistant secretary of state for Africa, and former national-security adviser Tony Lake, is considered one of Obama's closest confidants.

Craig told me he hadn't felt any hostility from his former colleagues in the Clinton inner circle. But other former Bill Clinton aides who have lined up with Obama say they have been warned that if Hillary wins the nomination their disloyalty will be remembered. Indeed, many junior or midlevel officials from the Clinton national security team continue to gravitate to Obama because they are wary of what one describes as Hillary's "closed circle." "A lot of us associated with the Clinton presidency had great feelings of loyalty to Bill Clinton, but those didn't extend to Hillary," says Obama Asia expert Jeffrey Bader. "I'm not a great believer in dynasties." Another official says, "There is a sense consciously or subconsciously that we don't want to just go back to same team: Holbrooke, Sandy, Madeleine...the same people having the same arguments about who's going to be in the room." (Clinton officials deny that any pressure tactics have been used, and Feinstein says, "Not only do we have the best advisers, we also have the best policy—and the best candidate who herself happens to have deep knowledge and experience on the entire range of these issues.")

The Republican candidates have the opposite problem: with the president's popularity at Nixonian lows and his foreign policy in broad disfavor with the electorate, nobody is rushing to hire the president's team. Normally, candidates would rush to seek the counsel of high-powered alumni of the president's foreign policy team. But so many of its members—like neocon hawks Paul Wolfowitz and Douglas Feith—are now thought to be tainted, their views are not widely welcomed. (An exception: the highly respected Robert Zoellick, former U.S. trade rep and deputy secretary of state. But Zoellick took himself out of the game when he replaced Wolfowitz as World Bank president in May.) At the same time, the Republicans' conservative base doesn't have much taste for the realists who dominated foreign-policy thinking in past GOP administrations (except for über-adviser Henry Kissinger, who has managed to transcend these divides with the same aplomb he has shown in past campaigns). For Republicans "there's no upside in declaring, 'These are my advisers.' The base hates realists, and neocons are too controversial," says sometime Romney adviser Dan Senor, former spokesman for the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq. "So the thinking is, don't define yourself by foreign-policy advisers."

Hillary Clinton is perhaps the most vulnerable to the charge that a vote for her will be a vote for the old foreign-policy establishment. So she's pressing her advisers to send the message that she doesn't simply want to go back to the foreign-policy approach of her husband, especially in the post-9/11 era. She's learned the lessons of his early hesitancy to use force in places like Bosnia (which had been urged by both Holbrooke and Albright). "She says, 'I want to go forward. I don't want to go back to the future'," says a top aide. "At this stage of the 1992 campaign, Bill Clinton didn't know anything about the use of power and only a limited amount about international affairs. She's tougher than he is. She's not going to advertise that during the primary process [because it might offend the left-leaning base]. But everyone who knows her knows that." As to the battle for the best and brightest, Holbrooke says, "My position is that in seven months we're all going to be on the same team."