What Penn Says About Clinton

Mark Penn has his uses. Running Hillary Clinton's campaign wasn't one of them. He was the wrong person at the wrong time for the wrong job. But, in fairness, he didn't choose himself. Hillary picked him—and stuck with him. That she did so speaks volumes about why she may well lose the race to Barack Obama.

At a time when voters clearly wanted change—big change—in Washington and in politics, Hillary chose as her "chief strategist" a multimillionaire corporate consultant who was the epitome of the D.C. lobbying and PR game of the Clinton and Bush II years.

Penn is who he is and makes no apologies for it. But what was Hillary thinking? Clearly, as the campaign began, she thought that she was on her way to a triumphal Restoration, and that having a capital courtier as guide was a proper prelude to coronation.

Only one problem: we don't generally do Restorations in America. This is not England, and the Clintons are not the Stuarts, or the Adamses or even the Bushes. Americans tend to look forward.

And voters tend not to like a candidate who insults their intelligence. Did Hillary think they wouldn't notice that her anti-corporate campaign was being run by a corporate guy?

Penn is an utterly brilliant fellow, but one who sometimes seems to understand America primarily through numbers. Though he wanted to be a political journalist when he was at Harvard, he was drawn to polling-based political consulting instead. Perhaps he found it easier to deal with people in the aggregate. In private he is a warm and considerate family man. But in business he can be brutally dismissive of anyone he thinks lacks his brains or data—which means almost everybody. He sometimes behaved as if he didn't even have to bother trying to explain things to the cretins around him.

Like many students of politics, Penn was oblivious to his own political profile. And again, it must be said, Clinton was equally blind—or arrogant—about what Penn's preeminence would signal. How else do you explain the decision to let him remain as Washington boss of Burson-Marsteller, one of the world's largest PR and lobbying firms, while, in effect, running the campaign? What planet were they on?

Answer: Planet Washington. Only among insiders in Washington would this kind of arrangement be considered even vaguely acceptable. The firm's list of clients—including the notorious Blackwater security company and the government of Colombia—was almost comically "off-message" for a Democratic campaign.

The acid tone permeated the campaign—but, again, that was Clinton's fault. She is the one who set up an unstable and untenable organization chart. It had a literally part-time Penn at its apex and everybody around him in what eventually became a circular firing squad.

John McCain's campaign is larded up with corporate consultants, but at least one of the top ones, Charlie Black, had the good sense to quit his own job at Burson.

Obama and his team are hardly saints. They have their Washington and corporate ties; they have their well-do-do and well-connected media and polling consultants. But it didn't take an industrial-strength "oppo" team to see Penn as a political clay pigeon.

Perhaps it was the money that led to the blindness all around. Hillary's launching pad was the Clinton money crowd of the '90s, and Penn knew—and was generally respected by—all of them. As for Penn, he didn't want to give up his stake in business for the mere task of electing another president. He had already helped to do that with Bill Clinton.

Penn will stay on, in a reduced role as a polltaker—the job he probably should have had to begin with—although why he is remaining at all given his ties to Burson is a mystery.

In retrospect, what Hillary should have done was move her entire campaign out of Washington, maybe to her home town of Chicago. On second thought, somebody else had already claimed that place.

Join the Discussion