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Forget her enemies, it could be Hillary's allies who are the problem

For as much that is said about Hillary Clinton's vaunted "enemies list," it's her "axis of allies" that might prove to be the bigger challenge come 2016.

When they aren't making controversial statements about the border, they are crossing swords with environmentalists. Or they're pleading guilty to campaign finance crimes.

Hillary Clinton has a long list of "allies," and that can be good, and that can be a problem.
Leigh Vogel | Getty Images
Hillary Clinton has a long list of "allies," and that can be good, and that can be a problem.

But mostly, they are just chattering—because that seems to be the defining role of an ally (or "ally," with air quotes) in the American political process: to talk to the press.

Recently, amidst revelations of a foreign policy split between Clinton and President Barack Obama, the Clintonian ally chamber was in full reverb, as a cast of "insiders," "close aides," "sources close to the Clintons," and so forth, tried to explain the former secretary of state's criticism of her former boss's Middle East approach. Although the controversy has temporarily abated, the resultant symposium underscored the facts of life for Hillary Clinton going forward: There are many people who know her, or have known her, and who have much to say about her. And the news media is readily willing to confer "ally" status on all of them.

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Clinton has given no indication that an official presidential announcement is imminent, and the conventional wisdom is that such a call would come sometime in the first quarter of 2015. That would leave many more months for her to percolate in the pre-campaign speculation soup, where the allied chatter can be particularly fallow and far flung. Not that it gets any better after an announcement.

"If she decides to run, the Clinton campaign would do well to draw clear lines from the outset to make clear who is playing an official role on the campaign and who is not," said Ben LaBolt, Obama's top campaign spokesman in the last election. "We spent days in 2012 cleaning up gaffes by so-called allies who actually had nothing to do with the campaign."

Clinton had her fair share of allied messes to clean up during her 2008 presidential bid, such as when her "ally" Bob Johnson, the co-founder of BET television network, snidely invoked Obama's drug use as a youth. Or when "ally" Geraldine Ferraro, the former vice presidential candidate, said Obama was "lucky" to be a black man running for president.

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A second Hillary run would likely launch an unprecedented pundit market with a premium on "allies" who might speak circumspectly, if not downright critically, of Clinton.

The Clintons are certainly not unfamiliar with one-time allies turning coats. Before he became one of America's most ignominious pundits, Dick Morris made his name by helping craft Bill Clinton's 1996 presidential re-election strategy. But after he was ensnared in a prostitute scandal, Morris resigned from the campaign and became a professional Clinton hater, writing a critical insider's account and later savaging Hillary Clinton's 2008 presidential campaign as a cable news pundit. (Morris, in an unusual act of discretion, declined to comment for this story.)

It's hard to imagine another Clintonite going quite that rogue, but there is certainly a constituency of former top insiders who now find themselves on the outside looking in. As The Washington Post reported early last year, four of Clinton's top campaign aides from 2008—campaign manager Patti Solis Doyle, communications director Howard Wolfson, chief strategist Mark Penn and policy director Neera Tanden—have indicated they won't be a part of a 2016 campaign.

The media machinations of Doyle, a longtime Clinton friend who was unceremoniously demoted during the 2008 campaign, are of particular interest to 2016 watchers.

"I will tell you that I have been getting more and more media requests since this impending campaign approaches," Doyle told CNBC.com. "Speaking for myself, I have my own work and I only do it if I have time, if it works with my schedule, which means it's rare. And with my colleagues from the 2008 campaign, I think the same goes for them. We are all sort of doing our own thing. I don't see it as a bonanza. It is not what I do, it is not my thing."

Nevertheless, she added, "I won't lie and say that an appearance on CNN or MSNBC isn't good for business."

In terms of Clinton's capacious roster of allies, Doyle said, "It is a blessing and a curse. Obviously, you have a wealth of surrogates and a wealth of people out there supporting you throughout your various walks of life. ... It is a curse in that it is like herding cats: There are all these people who feel like they know her well and have so much to contribute. You have to make sure they feel included."

One notable person who feels distinctly excluded is former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who had a falling out with the Clintons after he endorsed Obama in the 2008 primary. That move was made all more dramatic by the fact that he he had been deemed a Clinton ally, owing to his tenure as Bill Clinton's secretary of energy.

Richardson has made public his unrequited attempts to reach out to the Clintons since, and he now seems to be heading into 2016 as a potential off-message threat.

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"I will be absolutely candid," he said. "I will always speak my mind. I think that's why I get on TV. I think highly of her as a candidate, and I think she was a good secretary of state."

Richardson told CNBC.com he was displeased about Clinton's comments that unaccompanied minors who cross the border "should be sent back," but refrained from criticizing her publicly about it (until now, one supposes).

"If I were her, I would reach out to people like me," Richardson said. "But they don't seem to want to. And it could be President Clinton advising her in that way, [but] I don't think that is good politics for them. But so be it. I'm not suffering for it."

—By Daniel Libit, special to CNBC.com.

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