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.
What infuriated Penn’s colleagues in the Clinton campaign even more was the $13 million he received from the cash-strapped Clinton campaign, even as he kept receiving his Burson-Marsteller salary.
In the February interview with The Observer, he sought to defend his level of remuneration.
“I think there is a lot of misunderstanding and mis-reporting on this,” Penn said. “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.
But news of the Colombia meeting brought the complaints of Penn’s critics to a head.
On April 7, the campaign decided that it could not ignore this last misstep, which directly undermined Clinton’s professed support for trade deals more favorable to American workers.
“After the events of the last few days, Mark Penn has asked to give up his role as Chief Strategist of the Clinton Campaign,” Clinton campaign manager Maggie Williams said in a statement. “Mark, and Penn, Schoen and Berland Associates, Inc. will continue to provide polling and advice to the campaign. Geoff Garin and Howard Wolfson will coordinate the campaign’s strategic message team going forward.”
It is not yet clear exactly what Penn’s departure from the message team will mean for Clinton, and it could very well be too late for any of the major adjustments Wolfson has for years advocated for from within Hillaryland: that Clinton show more of her personal side and move away from the robotic predictability produced by an overreliance on Penn’s polling data.
In February, 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, in an interview that month, recalled the comment as self-deprecating, and was unrepentant about the campaign he had run. He asserted that to the extent that his message was heeded, it was successful. And even Penn’s enemies inside the campaign — and they were legion — allowed that his early work establishing Clinton as an experienced, tough-as-nails candidate had built the only foundation upon which a woman could plausibly be elected as commander in chief.
Penn often found himself shifting blame in the last few months, as his candidate lagged behind Obama in delegates and contests won.
He blamed the political ground and money game, run by former campaign manager Patti Solis Doyle, her deputy Mike Henry and longtime Clinton loyalist and his longtime foe Harold Ickes. What ruined it for Mrs. Clinton, he said in February, were “organization-driven” states, where she suffered defeats in “a series of caucuses that generated tremendous momentum for Obama.”
He had always done his job, he argued.
“I think that virtually every schoolchild knows that she is ‘ready on day one,’ Penn said at the time, 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.”
UPDATE: Demoted but very much not gone.