Mark Penn Strikes Back

>> Sunday, August 10, 2008

You thought he was gone didn’t you? Well it appears that it is tough to keep a good story down. By good, I mean a story of high drama, back stabbing, and discord. Just as the wounds of the primary have apparently healed the behind the scenes story of the Clinton campaign threatens to revive them. The article in question is by Atlantic Senior Editor Joshua Green and will be forthcoming in the magazines September issue. A sneak-peak was written by Politico's Mike Allen Most of the talk regarding the Clinton camp revolved around Mark Penn and the fact he was universally loathed. This article we be interesting for reasons beyond Penn though.

Let us get one thing out of the way, Penn’s desired strategy. What people are going to be talking about as the focal piece will be the strategy articulated by Penn for portraying Obama as Un-American.

Penn, the presidential campaign’s chief strategist, wrote in a memo to Clinton excerpted in the article: “I cannot imagine America electing a president during a time of war who is not at his center fundamentally American in his thinking and in his values.”


The Penn memo suggesting that the campaign target Obama’s “lack of American roots” said in part: “All of these articles about his boyhood in Indonesia and his life in Hawaii are geared towards showing his background is diverse, multicultural and putting that in a new light.

“Save it for 2050. ... Every speech should contain the line you were born in the middle of America American to the middle class in the middle of the last century. And talk about the basic bargain as about the deeply American values you grew up with, learned as a child and that drive you today. Values of fairness, compassion, responsibility, giving back

“Let’s explicitly own ‘American’ in our programs, the speeches and the values. He doesn’t. Make this a new American Century, the American Strategic Energy Fund. Let’s use our logo to make some flags we can give out. Let’s add flag symbols to the backgrounds.”

This sounds very familiar does it not? McCain’s first ad of the general election contained the line “The American President Americans have been waiting for”. Throw out America all the time make people believe that Obama is not patriotic, not a “real” American. As a strategy, it has far more potential for McCain than it ever did for Clinton. Clinton was dealing with a Democratic electorate who share many of the same views that Obama holds and who, unlike the right, do not view a multicultural world view as something to denigrate. That Penn was eager to use this shows how much like Karl Rove he is. I would not call Penn a racist but I believe he has no morals. He is willing to take whatever position he believes will get more votes. Penn is not interested in using a principled position out of the belief that position is right.

In Mike Allen’s preview of the article he does give Penn some positive words. He credits him with an unheralded memo outlining,

the importance of appealing to what he called “the Invisible Americans,” specifically “WOMEN, LOWER AND MIDDLE CLASS VOTERS” — exactly the groups that helped Clinton beat Obama in key states nearly a year later.

If Clinton had focused solely on those groups from the very beginning would she have beaten Obama? Probably not. I do not believe she would have increased her support among those groups by any significant margin. In addition, I do not believe that the middle class can be called overlooked. Everyone was right when they bagged on Penn. He does suck. Now we should move beyond Penn.

What are the wider implications of the piece and what do they reveal about Clinton? There are several implications for Clinton, one is that the piece coming now might revive some of the animosity towards her and reduce the chance she is named as the VP nominee. Two, it appears to reveal a weak executive. The third implication is the potential resurfacing of Democratic strife apparently buried.

The potential for Clinton as VP is not very great. She still carries the baggage that led many people to vote against her in the primaries. She does not represent “Change”, the central theme of the Obama candidacy. In addition, Clinton would have to take back all that mean stuff she said about Obama and that would be rather awkward. There is a great deal of resistance among the Obama base to giving Clinton the VP slot after the events of the primary and it seems like a pick that would not bring a whole lot to the table without offsetting those positives.

The second implication is something I would consider more serious on a personal level for Clinton. From what is revealed the implication is that Clinton was an ineffective and poor executive. There are three pieces of evidence for this in the article.

1. Atlantic Senior Editor Joshua Green writes that major decisions during her campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination would be put off for weeks until suddenly Clinton “would erupt, driving her staff to panic and misfire.”

2. “The anger and toxic obsessions overwhelmed even the most reserved Beltway wise men,” Green writes. “[H]er advisers couldn’t execute strategy; they routinely attacked and undermined each other, and Clinton never forced a resolution. ... [S]he never behaved like a chief executive, and her own staff proved to be her Achilles’ heel.

“What is clear from the internal documents is that Clinton’s loss derived not from any specific decision she made but rather from the preponderance of the many she did not make.”

3. The famous 3 a.m. ad, written by Penn and approved by Clinton, almost didn’t run: “In the days leading up to Ohio and Texas, the campaign kept arguing over whether to air the [3 a.m.] ad. With the deadline looming, Bill Clinton, speaking from a cell phone as his plane sat on a runway, led a conference call on Thursday, Feb. 28, in which he had both sides present their case. As his plane was about to lift off, it was Bill Clinton — not Hillary — who issued the decisive order: ‘Let’s go with it.’ ”

The picture painted is of a leader with trouble taking decisive action. Clinton was unable to make the decisions when required leading to trouble down the road. If true, it appears that one of the most important decisions, whether to run the 3am attack ad, was made by Bill and not Hillary. It is really a decision that Clinton herself should have made. She mishandled her personnel allowing the infighting and internal politicking to get in the way of the campaign.

The impact on her legacy is hard to gauge. As a groundbreaking candidate, she will be venerated by history. However, the postmortem analysis may change the story of her loss to be one not of a superior unstoppable Obama but a flawed Clinton. That is not really the story that she wants to have.

There is another story contained in the preview. The story of the 3am ad. It appears that Bill Clinton made the final decision about the ad in full knowledge that the wins in Ohio and Texas were not going to be enough to turn the campaign around.

On Feb. 25, a pair of Clinton advisers began sending a series of increasingly urgent memos, which were given to me by a recipient sympathetic to Solis Doyle as a way of illustrating that strategic mistakes continued even after her dismissal [announced Feb. 10]. The first memo, from Philippe Reines and Andrew Shapiro, worried that Clinton’s anticipated wins in Texas and Ohio on March 4 would not meaningfully narrow Obama’s delegate lead — a fact sure to sap momentum once the initial excitement of victory passed.”

She was not going to win without some type of game changing development. The 3am ad appears to have been the attempt at that game change. You can decide if you think it was required from the Clinton point of view but I am not inclined to judge it too harshly.

I believe that the reason this is coming out now to try and break Dem cohesiveness before the convention and hopefully provide some ugly scene for the camera. Otherwise it is a story that will answer some questions while raising new ones. There is one thing everyone can agree on though and that is that Mark Penn should never be hired by anyone ever again.


O-le,O-le, O-le, O-le! O-le, O-le!

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