The Waning of Penn

In July 2007, the Clinton campaign’s then-chief-strategist Mark Penn sat in his gleaming white and aquarium-walled chief executive’s office at the global public relations firm Burson-Marsteller talking about a mistake he thought Howard Wolfson had made in responding to comments from a prominent Obama supporter.

“It’s very important in politics not to make the same mistake too many times,” Penn said at the time.

As if proving those words, Penn was removed by the Clinton campaign as chief strategist, after it was revealed that he had met with officials from Colombia to push a bilateral trade treaty with the United States, a policy Hillary Clinton opposes. It wasn’t the first time Penn’s corporate work posed an apparent conflict of interest for the campaign, but this time it cost him his title, if not his association with the campaign. (He will continue to poll and advise, according to an official campaign statement.)

Now, it will be none other than Wolfson, the communications director he gently criticized in public and butted heads with in private, who will take over his primary responsibilities as the campaign’s chief message crafter.

Until now Penn had successfully dodged a barrage of bullets from Clinton campaign advisers disgruntled with his choice of tactics, his unwavering belief in the power of poll-tested messages and his chilly personality. Dating back to at least Clinton’s loss in Iowa, staffers have been privately wishing him the worst.

And yet Penn’s closeness to Bill Clinton (his Burson-Marsteller office is decorated with several framed notes of “To Mark Penn, Thanks,” from President Clinton, including one across a Washington Post with the headline reading “Clinton Acquitted”) and the confidence the candidate ultimately had in him allowed him to hold onto the title of chief strategist, one he cherished and was proud of, even as his few allies argued that his influence in the struggling campaign had waned.

It took Penn’s own doing finally to knock him out of his position at the strategic helm. It was a seemingly unthinkable blunder, putting Clinton’s main message-maker at clear odds with one of her key economic messages as she appeals to working class voters in Pennsylvania. Worse still, it came after the Clinton campaign had tirelessly attacked the Obama campaign in the run-up to the Ohio primary after a lower-level adviser apparently suggested to Canadian officials that Obama’s position on Nafta was different from what he said on the campaign trail.

And it wasn’t the first time Penn found himself facing criticism for apparent conflicts of interest between his role as a high-paid public relations man and the (high-paid) brains of Hillary Clinton’s presidential bid.

Burson-Marsteller’s work for companies seeking to thwart union organizing campaigns enraged the union activists whose support the Clinton campaign was seeking. The firm’s contract with Countrywide Financial, the nation’s largest mortgage lender, led to some uncomfortable press for a candidate who constantly rails against foreclosures and the housing crisis. And its indirect representation of the military contractor Blackwater Worldwide, whose alleged above-the-law style of operation in Iraq have made it a prime example for war critics of the Bush administration’s mishandling of the occupation, raised yet more questions about Penn’s judgment.

The Waning of Penn