On a conference call among high-level Clinton staffers on the morning of April 7, longtime adviser Mark Penn was arguing about a proposed advertisement for Hillary Clinton.
“Mark, Mark, Mark,” said Geoff Garin, a pollster who had taken over some of Mr. Penn’s duties as chief strategist, as Mr. Penn continued to press his point. “A decision has already been made.”
The mighty Mark Penn had been shot down.
The exchange, recounted by a campaign source who was on the call, was perhaps the first concrete indication of a post-Penn era of sorts in the Clinton campaign. Before Mr. Penn was officially stripped of his title as chief strategist on the evening of April 6, he was the one aide with an effective veto over the message-related and tactical ideas of other top advisers, several Clinton staffers said in interviews. Now, they say, he is relegated, at best, to co-equal status with all the other aides called upon regularly to offer their two cents.
“He’s just a voice among many voices, and that’s not a bad thing for the campaign,” explained one of the few remaining Penn sympathizers within the campaign.
For what seems to be a very heavy majority of Clinton supporters and staffers, Mr. Penn’s public dressing-down was cause for unalloyed joy—a clean end to an era in which a man they loathed, professionally and personally, had free reign over the public direction of the presidential bid.
“He was already on fairly thin ice within the campaign, where his effective role had already been largely diminished,” said Hassan Nemazee, one of the campaign’s national finance chairmen. “There is a general rule that also applies to business and life: ‘If you give good advice, you are on solid ground. If you give bad advice, you are on very thin ice or you are not around anymore.’”
Certainly, the campaign staffers who professed to be happy that Mr. Penn’s apparent removal insisted that their bête noire had been well and truly neutered.
“Every little ad and direct-mail and radio spot and speech had to have Mark’s approval on it—he could look at everything he wanted,” said one. “That’s no longer the case.”
Of course, there are other channels to Mrs. Clinton, and given Bill Clinton’s close relationship with Mr. Penn, the only people who know for sure how gone he really is right now are the candidate, the former president and, presumably, Mr. Penn, who lost his title as chief strategist after it was revealed that he had met with Colombian officials, in his capacity as the chief executive of the global public-relations firm Burson-Marsteller, to push a bilateral free trade agreement that his other client, Mrs. Clinton, opposes.
He is still officially polling for and advising the campaign, and, the Clinton campaign says, is still on the payroll. But Mr. Penn’s participation on the morning internal conference call the day after his sentence was curtly pronounced, via press release, by campaign manager Maggie Williams, was minimal and enfeebling. According to one Clinton aide with knowledge of the day’s conference calls, he did not participate in any of the calls on April 8.
The irony is that in recent weeks, as the campaign was forced to concede the race for elected delegates and endured a slow leak of undecided superdelegates to the Obama camp, Mr. Penn actually sought to minimize his role in bringing Mrs. Clinton to this point. And his few allies maintained that the problem with the campaign was that a campaign-by-committee atmosphere diluted his authority. It was up to others, like longtime Clinton confidante and Penn rival Harold Ickes, to point out that Mr. Penn was, in fact, running the show.
“It’s pretty plain for anyone to see that he has shaped the strategy of the campaign. He has called the shots,” Mr. Ickes told The Observer on Feb 28.
“Mark Penn,” he said, “has dominated the message in this campaign. Dominated it.”
Numerous Clinton aides interviewed for this story insisted that that arrangement has been rendered inoperative by this week’s developments, and expressed hope that Mr. Penn’s relative absence would clear the way for others—particularly communications director Howard Wolfson and Mr. Garin, the pollster—to take the fading campaign in another, more unapologetically liberal direction.
“This is a victory for Howard personally. They were both competing to be the message person; it was frustrating to him to the point of him going nuts,” said one staffer. “I see it as a win for the progressive wing of this campaign. You work on this campaign and you become branded as centrist because Mark was a centrist.”
“This opens up a vacuum in the campaign that will be filled with people who I think have a vision for what the campaign needs to be doing and where it needs to be going right now,” said another staffer. “People who realize that the strength-and-experience box, while an important one, has been checked, and that it’s also important for voters to know what motivates Senator Clinton.”