Questions Remain About Clinton Strategist Mark Penn's Campaign Role

Election '08

Mark Penn has resigned as Hillary Clinton's chief strategist. But questions remain about what role he'll play inside the Clinton campaign (his firm will still provide polling) and why he had such a prominent position in the Clinton orbit to begin with.

The news about conflicts of interests stemming from Penn's business work was hardly new. The Nation reported last May, in an investigative profile, that Penn's massive PR and lobbying firm, Burson-Marsteller, was running a union-busting division and helping a number of unsavory characters (big tobacco, oil companies, etc) that Democratic politicians, including Hillary Clinton, have distanced themselves from.

"[I] have never personally participated in any anti-union activity," Penn told me last May. "Personally my father was for many years a union organizer in the poultry workers union and so I find these attempts to connect me to work done by a firm I then had no connection with to have absolutely no relevance and a complete distortion of my views and my own work."

But Penn was only half telling the truth. Even after joining the Clinton campaign, he continued to work on projects that labor and Democratic politicians bitterly opposed, like a free trade deal with Colombia, a country with a history of murdering union organizers -- which eventually led to his resignation. He never took a formal leave of absence from Burson-Marsteller, as other figures in the Clinton campaign did from their prior jobs. He said that he was only helping Microsoft, his biggest client, which we now know wasn't the case. And after the publication of my article, Burson and its subsidiaries assisted a number of controversial clients, including Countrywide, a leading subprime mortgage lender, the private mercenary company Blackwater and Aqua Dots, maker of tainted Chinese toys.

Unlike many bogus resignations this campaign season, Penn's departure was long overdue. "The only real question was, why did it not happen sooner?" former Dean and Edwards strategist Joe Trippi told the Washington Post today. "The conflicts have been a problem for the campaign from the start."

Only the mainstream media chose to initially ignore them. Shortly before the publication of my article, the Washington Post wrote a glowing profile about Penn and his "undisputed brilliance." Fortunately publications like The Nation, The American Prospect, The Huffington Post and others chose to dig deeper, scrutinizing Penn's business interests and his approach to politics.

It was a "fairy tale," to paraphrase Bill Clinton, to expect that a pollster who (along with Dick Morris) had coined the strategy of triangulation for Clinton in '96 and had worked for the DLC and Joe Lieberman could convincingly package Hillary as an authentic populist and progressive. Instead Penn chose to sell Clinton as a hawkish, technocratic quasi-incumbent--a terrible strategy in a change election. His bite-sized approach to the electorate and pro-corporate centrism represented the Democratic Party of the past, not the future.

After a disastrous performance in Iowa, Penn became a punching bag in the media and a polarizing and unpopular presence inside the campaign, where his gruff and arrogant manner led to shouting matches with Clinton loyalists like adviser Harold Ickes. When things really turned sour for Penn, after the Wall Street Journal reported that he had met with Colombia's ambassador to push for the trade deal, the chief strategist had few defenders left inside the campaign. He was forced to resign.

Yet reports of Penn's demise may still be premature. Will his demotion represent a real change of strategy inside the campaign or more of a PR move to push Penn out of the spotlight while he continues to have the Clintons' ear? That's the real question worth asking. The buck stops at the top.

UPDATE: According to Marc Ambinder of The Atlantic, Penn is still on the campaign's conference calls and still plotting strategy. A senior Clinton aide says Penn "is still going to be very much involved." His reported resignation looks more like a subtle demotion at this point in time.

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