Trail To The Chief: The 2016 Handlers Behind The Curtain Edition

The 2016 Handlers Behind the Curtain Edition

Longtime Republican operative Karl Rove ("The Architect" of former President George W. Bush’s election victories) is as well-known as many of the GOP's 2016 presidential hopefuls. Rove embodies what Trail to the Chief sees as a depressing but inescapable fact: Campaign “handlers” have become as much the political story as the candidates they “handle.”

How did this happen? Modern media creates candidates who dare not speak aloud in uncontrolled public situations, or even in private ones (ask Mitt Romney). Candidates have no actual personal relationships in the press corps; they rely on staff to spin the narrative and paper over the cracks. Campaigns have become sprawling, billion-dollar enterprises that are too big for the candidates to effectively command.

Reporters lionize those who become sources of exclusive news. And increasingly, that’s not the candidates. Handlers know this, and generally don’t mind being dotingly described as game-changers by, say, Mark Halperin and John Heilemann, co-authors of the best-selling “insider” account Game Change, its sequel Double Down: Game Change 2012, and the surely forthcoming The Taking Of The Game Change 1-2-3: The Two-Thousand And Sixteenthening.

All of which sort of makes one ask, “Wow, is this a trend that will inevitably lead to an absurd end that is beyond parody?” Yes. And we may now be arriving at that end. In at least one case, with maybe more to come, the top handler in 2016 will be someone who isn’t legally part of the campaign at all. Rather, it will be someone running an “independent” dark money super PAC.

Which means that, if the Koch brothers and other billionaires have their way, candidates (and the president) will devolve into something completely incidental to real politics. We’re at the threshold of a new era, in which presidential candidates are no longer visionary dispensers of authentic policy wisdom learned from the trenches of experience, but, rather, merely stylish two-dimensional avatars through which the wants and needs of billionaire wealth are expressed. And the only thing that arrangement requires is good P.R.

So let’s meet the wizards behind the drapes. Here is TTTC's list of the top handlers for each candidate, ranked by a proprietary algorithm that accounts for the clout and notoriety of the staffer and the likelihood of the candidate's eventual victory.

1 HILLARY CLINTON JOHN PODESTAThe Tom Hagen of Washington Democrats, universally respected and effective. If anyone can bring order and momentum to the faction-ridden royal progress that is the HRC campaign, it is Podesta. He will, however, need more than a red arrow.
2 JEB BUSH MIKE MURPHYThere were two stars on “The Straight Talk Express," John McCain’s 2000 campaign bus: McCain himself, and Murphy. A GOP centrist, Murphy worked for “maverick” McCain's campaign against W., but remained close to Jeb. He will run the former Florida governor's effort "from outside," allegedly as head of Bush’s Right to Rise super PAC.
3 SCOTT WALKER RICK WILEY A veteran D.C. Republican insider (he was political director of the Republican National Committee), Wiley’s job will be to polish the diamond in the rough that many see in Wisconsin Gov. Walker. A former Giuliani aide, Wiley has dealt with the money people in New York who like Walker’s bio but worry about whether he is ready for primetime.
4 MARCO RUBIO TODD HARRISWell-liked by the press corps and well-connected, Harris was also on McCain’s 2000 bus, in the somewhat superfluous role of press secretary. He would rather forget that he was also a top gun in former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson’s 2008 campaign, which died about 20 minutes after the actor/politician (and now reverse-mortgage pitch man) declared his candidacy.
5 RAND PAUL DOUG STAFFORDHaving learned how to write sharp fundraising appeals for the anti-union National Right to Work Committee, Stafford quickly went from low-level consultant to Paul’s Senate chief of staff and, now, the leader of his PAC. Like his boss, Stafford's not afraid to mix it up with reporters (or to use a mysterious silhouette as his Twitter avatar).
6 TED CRUZ JASON JOHNSONCruz is a smart guy, but Johnson has to be smarter, since he is widely known as Cruz’s “political brain.”
7 BERNIE SANDERS MICHAEL BRIGGSIt's not yet clear who will run the gruff senator's campaign, or have the nerve to try to tell him what to do. In the meantime, Sanders will continue to rely on calm, soft-spoken comms director Mike Briggs, a widely respected former Chicago Sun-Times reporter who's private enough that we defaulted to using a photo of his boss.
8 BEN CARSON ARMSTRONG WILLIAMSAn African-American Republican from South Carolina sounds like a political oxymoron, but Williams is a pioneer of the breed. (He started out as a protege of Strom Thurmond and Lee Atwater, and, later, Clarence Thomas). Energetic and shrewd, part pundit and part operative, he’ll need all of his category-defying skills to help Carson become more than a novelty.
9 MARTIN O'MALLEY BILL HYERS & LIS SMITHO’Malley’s operation is shaping up to be the Baltimore iteration of Bill de Blasio's New York City mayoral campaign. Hyers ran that successful effort, which gives him solid contacts within the Democratic left. Lis Smith was DeBlasio’s spokeswoman for a time, and before that was a flak at the DGA. Uptown but tough.
10 CHRIS CHRISTIE MICHAEL DUHAIMEDuHaime has Washington experience at the RNC and Manhattan experience with Rudy Giuliani, but is New Jersey through and through. Whatever Bridgegate was or is, DuHaime isn’t slowed by it, and is considered CC’s top guy -- with a reputation for toughness to match his boss.

Photos: Getty, Associated Press, Twitter

A prior version of this article misidentified Lis Smith as DeBlasio's Communications Director and having worked for the DNC. She in fact was his spokeswoman and worked for the DGA.