Rumpled Mark Penn, Clinton Pollster, Goes Back to Battle

MR. PENN, A FIERCE COMPETITOR in everything he does, is now the sole partner in the powerhouse polling firm Penn, Schoen & Berland, after having sold the company to the parent company of international public relations giant Burson-Marsteller.

Mr. Schoen recently left, and Michael Berland, who worked as a pollster for Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York, just settled a lawsuit with Mr. Penn after appearing to violate the terms of a no-competition clause he signed when he left the company.

“Mike was very sorry and settled up,” Mr. Penn said. “I had 20 years with him and I think he learned a lesson.”

His former partner had reached out to him, Mr. Penn said, but he had yet to accept the apology. “One step at a time,” he said.

The Washington headquarters of Burson-Marsteller, of which he is now C.E.O., gleams with white walls and aquamarine glass. His corner office is always stocked with Diet Cokes and something called Propel Fitness Water. A desk made from airplane parts sits under a triptych of computer screens while an aquarium populated with blue and yellow fish partitions him from executives hunched over a speakerphone. The walls and bookcases are adorned with more presidential signatures than a peace treaty.

At one point, Mr. Penn proudly pointed out several framed notes of “To Mark Penn, Thanks,” from President Clinton, including one across a Washington Post with the headline, “Clinton Acquitted.”

In an hour-and-a-half conversation, the closest he came to saying anything vaguely reflective or critical about the way Mrs. Clinton’s campaign has gone so far was when he addressed its handling of a spat early this year with Mr. Obama.

Asked about the aggressive public response of Clinton communications director Howard Wolfson to comments from Obama supporter David Geffen, Mr. Penn said, “I don’t think that played out very well.”

“It’s very important in politics not to make the same mistake too many times,” he said. “If we had that one to do over again we would probably approach it differently.”

But when it comes to the sort of issue-by-issue campaign Mrs. Clinton ran to get into the Senate and is now employing in her bid for the White House, Mr. Penn has no regrets.

When Mrs. Clinton first ran for Senate, in 2000, Mr. Penn fought with influential staffers in her campaign who wanted the candidate to define herself by offering a grand vision. Instead, he advocated a more modest approach, in which she would speak out on local issues that his polling indicated were most important to voters. She won, and so did he.

Now that Mrs. Clinton is running for president, there is again disagreement over whether she needs to do more to define herself and what she stands for. Mr. Penn, true to form, argues that Mrs. Clinton is articulating a worldview through her policy positions, and that in fact if any candidate had failed to articulate a vision, it is Barack Obama.

“His best attribute is inspiring, not vision,” said Mr. Penn. “One of the failures is that he hasn’t articulated any real vision.”

Mr. Penn’s vision for the Democratic Party has consistently been one of a determinedly centrist entity—former Democratic consultant Bob Shrum called Mr. Penn “ideologically non-ideological”—that is fiscally conservative and strong on national security. He says that he was a Democratic Leadership Council Democrat even before the group existed, or before he became their resident pollster. And he and Mr. Schoen have for decades railed against Democrats running on “fairness” as a surefire electoral loser.