Mark Penn thinks that people have the wrong impression about him, and about Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.
“I think that people misunderstand,” he said in a 45-minute phone interview Monday evening.
He said that the emerging story line—that his poll-obsessed, microtargeting approach had produced a plodding, uninspiring campaign—was a bum rap. “The campaign has been about big goals, health care, ending the Iraq war, new energy, the future,” he said. “There was a misunderstanding that this campaign was about small things. It never was. If anything, the Obama campaign has microtargeted constituencies.”
Fair or not, the fate of Mrs. Clinton’s campaign—she’s heading into the last-chance March 4 primaries with her lead dwindling in Ohio and gone in Texas—is going to be seen as a referendum on Mr. Penn, who has arguably been the Clintons’ most influential adviser for more than a decade. As the campaign squares up to the possibility of an ignominious end on March 4, Clinton loyalists have left no doubt about who they consider to be the responsible party.
Leon Panetta, who served as chief of staff in the White House from July 1994 to January 1997, told The Observer’s Niall Stanage in an interview this week that Mr. Penn “is a political pollster from the past.”
“I never considered him someone who would run a national campaign for the presidency,” Mr. Panetta said.
A source in the campaign, speaking on background, said that Mr. Penn’s philosophy was perfectly represented by a comment he made during one of Mrs. Clinton’s debate preps at campaign headquarters in early winter. About 15 staffers were in a room with Mrs. Clinton discussing how she could best respond to a particular line of attack. One of the aides, the source recalled, had an idea.
“I think you need to show a little bit of humanity,” said the aide.
Mr. Penn interjected. “Oh, come on, being human is overrated.”
“Everyone laughed and it broke the tension, and even he had a smile on his face,” said the source. “But it said a lot because it seemed to really encapsulate a viewpoint.”
Mr. Penn, who recalled the comment as self-deprecating, was unrepentant about the campaign he had run, asserting that to the extent that his message was heeded, it was successful.
“I think that virtually every schoolchild knows that she is ‘ready on day one,’ said Mr. Penn, referring to one of the slogans he designed for Mrs. Clinton. “If you look back—at the beginning she was ‘ready for change and ready to lead’ and that’s something that built a large coalition that carried her through Super Tuesday. Between then and now, there was a period where the campaign didn’t have resources to play ahead in those states it needed to campaign in.”
As he put it, his strategy had succeeded in the “biggest message-oriented states.”
And, by implication, the political ground and money game, run by former campaign manager Patti Solis Doyle, her deputy Mike Henry and longtime Clinton loyalist and Penn foe Harold Ickes, ruined it for Mrs. Clinton in “organization-driven” states, where she suffered defeats in “a series of caucuses that generated tremendous momentum for Obama.”
Of course, if Mrs. Clinton was running all along as the change candidate, that was far from clear: Her early campaign slogans were “Renew the Promise of America” and “In to Win,” and they only gave way later to “Working for Change, Working for You.”
Even Mrs. Clinton’s campaign-rescuing win in New Hampshire seemed attributable to factors ranging far beyond any carefully constructed message, when she benefited from a surge of support following an extraordinary display of emotion at a campaign stop the day before the primary. (Mr. Ickes, a senior campaign adviser, has publicly pointed out more than once that even Mr. Penn was surprised by the result.)
Mr. Penn thinks the revelation of her personality was helpful, sure, but that it was the strong base he had built under her with poll-tested, tough-sounding messages that really raised her up with New Hampshire voters.
“There was the right combination of these things in New Hampshire,” he said. “Exit polls showed that people thought she was strongest on economy and as commander in chief. And that combination was most successful.”
He added that in many of the places she won, voters “saw her strength and leadership and thought she was the best person to manage the economy and be commander in chief. And these would be the strongest attributes to enable such a victory.”
Like just about everyone else in the Clinton campaign, Mr. Penn blames unfair press coverage for some of Mrs. Clinton’s problems.
“There’s a phenomenon in which Senator Obama has run a harshly negative campaign,” he said, saying that the subtext of every Obama remark about Mrs. Clinton is that she is status quo and old hat. “And it is not reported that way. When she draws a reasonable contrast, the press often reports it much more negatively.” Not that he has a problem with negative. He’s quite open about the fact that he wants his candidate to do more of it.
“She is going to be drawing more contrast now and she will continue to draw contrasts,” said Mr. Penn, adding that “in New Hampshire she drew sharp contrasts at the debate and had the personal moment. She did both things.”
That Mr. Penn should be the voice in the campaign loudly advocating a bruising, winning-is-everything strategy isn’t surprising. It’s a role he has played from the very beginning, according to both pro-Penn and anti-Penn sources within the campaign.
Mr. Penn argued all along that Mrs. Clinton’s main selling point was her readiness to be president. He largely rejected the notion, advocated by communications director Howard Wolfson and chief media consultant Mandy Grunwald, among others, that Mrs. Clinton needed to reveal more of her personal side.
He wanted to hit Mr. Obama early. Long an advocate of hardball campaigning, he thought it best to dispatch with Mr. Obama while the third-year senator from Illinois was still a vulnerable upstart.
Some of his colleagues thought this was a simplistic view.
“He too often thought an oppo-hit was going to take the guy down,” said a campaign source. “What we really needed was a coherent negative frame on Barack Obama, and we don’t have that.”
Another source in the campaign added that the press operation, led by Mr. Wolfson, had pushed back because Mr. Penn wanted to go negative in ways that the communications people felt were counterproductive.
“He had no tactical sense of what the market would bear,” said the campaign source, pointing in particular to Mr. Penn’s early criticism of Mr. Obama’s consistency in opposing the Iraq war, which, the source said, had the effect of putting the Clinton campaign on the defensive for weeks.
Much of the criticism of Mr. Penn since Mr. Obama’s initial primary victory in Iowa has centered on the philosophy articulated in his book Microtrends, a Tipping Point-style collection of essays about tiny-but-influential demographics th
at he thinks could change society.
He reserves a special disdain for a group he identifies as the “impressionable elites”: people who can afford to pick candidates based on fuzzy feelings rather than on the impact the candidates’ policies will have on their lives. At a recent discussion of the book at the Strand bookstore in Manhattan, during which Mr. Penn said, “The theory of the book is that the era of big trends is over,” one audience member asked if Mr. Obama was not a “macrotrend.” (Barack Obama’s chief strategist, David Axelrod, had made a similar gibe earlier this year.)
As the campaign wore on, Mr. Penn’s frustrations grew. In title, he was chief strategist, and he ostensibly had final sign-off on everything message-related that came out of the campaign. But he felt his authority had gradually been diluted by a variety of advisers all eager to push their own message. No one reported to him directly at headquarters, and many decisions also had to go through Ms. Solis Doyle, who had a close relationship with Mr. Wolfson, whom she consulted often.
Since Super Tuesday, the cast of characters has grown. Ms. Solis Doyle is out, and Maggie Williams, Mrs. Clinton’s former chief of staff, is in. And there has been yet more layering with the addition of political adviser Doug Sosnick and ad specialist Roy Spence.
Still, one of the campaign sources suggested, if Mr. Penn lost the argument over strategy, he has only himself to blame.
“When you are in command—command,” said the source. “What the most successful leaders on a campaign do is—when they know that they have a winning idea—they tuck it under their arm like a football and shepherd it from the line of scrimmage to the goal line. And that doesn’t always happen. If [former Bill Clinton aides] Podesta or Lockhart or Carville have a good idea, they don’t let it get knocked off course because it doesn’t poll well among other staff.”
Mr. Penn’s public position has not been strengthened by the revelation, in the most recent campaign filing with the Federal Election Commission, that Penn, Schoen & Berland Associates, the firm that includes Mr. Penn and his team, received $3.8 million in fees in January (and more than $10 million total) from the cash-strapped Clinton campaign.
He says that those figures are misleading, too.
“I think there is a lot of misunderstanding and mis-reporting on this,” said Mr. Penn. “This has been overwhelmingly for voter contact and direct mail, and all of it goes to companies, not to me personally, and I do not own the companies, and they are part of a Fortune 500 company. Large teams of people are involved.”
He said that more than 70 percent of the expenditures had been for direct mail, printing and postage.
“No one ever expected the campaign to be this big and in this many states,” he said, adding, “The consulting fees to the company are capped at $240,000 for the year for a team of people, and we did less polling by far than Barack Obama, and those polling expenses involve hundreds of people. Every single expenditure is reviewed and approved by the campaign, by Harold Ickes and his team, one by one. I have absolutely no budget authority or any administrative control. I am not at any meetings involving the budget.
Mr. Penn argued that the race was far from over, and said that he liked the campaign’s chances to turn things around in Ohio and Texas.
And as he prepared to fly to Ohio on Feb. 26 to help Mrs. Clinton in debate prep with other staff, he said, some of his colleagues were already trying to undermine him.
“I always tell people—win and we all win. Lose and we all lose,” he said. “I believe she can win, and she would by far be the best candidate in the general election for the Democrats. So I appreciate people are trying to write their story lines in advance—mostly out of their own self-interest. If we lose, I will take my share of the responsibility. I have won about 70 major elections around the world, including many presidents, and I devised the simple message for Tony Blair in his last successful campaign: ‘Forward, Not Back.’
“In the last 30 years there have been only three successful Democratic presidential campaigns, and I am pleased to have done one of them. Anyone who knows me knows I will keep fighting for what I believe in.”