In the 1980s to early 2000s, the formidable James Baker served as a political consigliere to several Republican administrations and campaigns. He was chief of staff in President Reagan's first term before serving as secretary of the treasury in the second Reagan administration. He was chief of staff in the final year of George H. W. Bush’s presidency after being secretary of state in that government. He served as undersecretary of commerce for President Ford then helped turn around Ford's 1976 re-election campaign, which came back from a 19-point deficit to lose to Jimmy Carter by 2 points.
What sticks in the craws of Democratic presidential operatives is how in the disputed 2000 Florida election, Baker came out of retirement and shifted the outcome of that decisive election to the U.S. Supreme Court, which gave the presidency to his close friend's son, George W. Bush. Nothing in American politics has been the same since.
Democrats don’t have anyone with quite the same record, but John Podesta, Hillary Clinton’s new campaign chairman, comes close. “Perhaps no other unelected Democrat has shaped his party as much over the last two decades,” wrote the New York Times’ Peter Baker of Podesta.
He was deputy chief of staff to President Carter, after he had helped run Sen. Ted Kennedy’s unsuccessful challenge to Carter. While he worked for Clinton’s 2008 campaign against Barack Obama, the president-elect asked him to run his transition, and Podesta persuaded him to appoint Clinton as secretary of state. He later served as adviser to President Obama. Previously as President Bill Clinton's chief of staff, Podesta helped save his presidency after impeachment and helped him navigate treacherous waters between labor and centrist elements in the Democratic Party.
Far from a neutral observer, he has worked tirelessly on environmental issues, pushing for new regulations on power plants, the creation of the world’s largest marine sanctuary in the Pacific Ocean, and protecting stretches of Alaskan waters and wildlife refuge from drilling. Bloomberg News’ Al Hunt said Podesta was a “major player in negotiations with China” that led to unprecedented limits on greenhouse gases.
Some of his professional credentials are similar to Republican Baker, but his personal life is quite different. While Baker grew up as the scion of a wealthy Houston family of establishment lawyers, Podesta grew up in an Italian-Greek working class household in Chicago. His father dropped out of high school and worked in factories, pushing his children to go to college. A Georgetown-trained lawyer and a practicing Catholic, Podesta honors his mother’s faith by displaying Greek Orthodox symbols in his office. He lives in the same house he’s owned in D.C. since 1978 and often takes the Metro subway to work.
Baker founded a public policy institute at Rice University in Houston; Podesta founded the Center for American Progress, the most influential liberal think tank in Washington; he remains a visiting professor of law at the Georgetown University Law Center.
As congressional Republicans continued to block important legislation, Podesta and a colleague developed a strategy to encourage the president to use his executive authority more aggressively without waiting for congressional action. Much as President Harry Truman used executive orders 70 years ago against what he called “a do-nothing Congress,” President Obama has issued “executive memoranda" to take action on immigration and gun ownership.
Hillary Clinton’s top campaign adviser will be responsible for managing relations between President Obama's and Clinton’s political teams. But Podesta's most important job may well be maximizing the value of the occasionally undisciplined former President Bill Clinton, who can be both a major asset and a major liability. Those who know Podesta say that he and President Clinton speak regularly and — perhaps just as crucial — they listen to one another.
Problems such as Clinton’s emails and the fundraising problems of the family foundation require adult supervision to prevent them from becoming open wounds on her candidacy. Rather than tolerating warring factions that led to paralysis and conflict in her 2008 campaign, in choosing Podesta, Clinton has given ultimate authority to the most respected James Baker-like figure the Democrats have in Washington.
Paul Begala, a former Clinton White House aide and longtime friend, said of Podesta, “He believes in and uses power in a way that many Democrats are too pusillanimous to do. He’s not afraid to use power, and ruthlessly if necessary. I think he’s as good a political guy as I’ve ever seen. He’s the real thing.”
Dan Payne is Democratic analyst for WBUR and a contributor to The Boston Globe.