Wednesday, April 9, 2008


In the latest glimpse of the train wreck in slow motion that is the Hillary Clinton presidential campaign, Clinton’s chief strategist Mark Penn was removed from that role on Sunday for committing a faux pas that, while toweringly idiotic in its own right, was emblematic — or maybe symptomatic — of Team Clinton’s talent for speaking, and strategizing, with forked tongue.

And Penn’s relationship with Clinton, and the fallout that emerged on Monday, may have serious symbolic repercussions for her faltering campaign in the blue-collar rust-belt regions of Pennsylvania, a state whose primary on April 22 may be pivotal to her campaign’s ability to survive.

Penn, of course, is the venerated pollster; chief executive of Burson-Marsteller, the internationally known public relations firm; and author of “Microtrends,” a 2007 book whose thesis is that the smaller trends of our society are in many ways the most important ones, the trends often responsible for tectonic shifts in culture, politics and technology.

The book was not universally well-received. Ezra Klein, writing last September in In These Times, said it was “so bad that the question — in a fair world — isn’t whether it will destroy his own reputation, but whether it is so epically awful as to take the entire polling industry down with it.”

“Microtrends” in many ways apes the insightful book by Malcolm Gladwell, “The Tipping Point,” a work (published in 2002) that explores the ways in which a concept, a behavior or a trend acquires an irresistible momentum into the wider culture.

The Penn book and its premise worked just fine for Hillary Clinton, who hired him as her campaign “chief strategist” last year. That fact (and Burson-Marsteller’s role in helping a company fight a unionization drive by its 17,000 workers) didn’t exactly endear Clinton to labor leaders. Penn, you see, didn’t take a leave from his post at Burson-Marsteller to take on the clearly partisan position of Clinton’s statistical Richelieu. He took on a dual role, keeping his day job and working the Clinton gig at the same time.

Teamsters president James Hoffa told The New York Times’ Steven Greenhouse last June: “If Hillary is pro-worker and pro-union, she will certainly take steps to rein in Mr. Penn. He cannot serve two masters, working for a pro-union candidate and working for anti-union companies.”

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It’s been a rocky if lucrative road for pollster Penn. There’s been much friction between the reportedly mercurial Penn and the Clinton campaign staff, even shouting matches over strategy among top Clinton lieutenants. Then it all went south. Hugely.

On Friday, Penn underwent his own tectonic shift when he was forced to apologize for his role in lobbying, on behalf of the Colombia government, for a bilateral free trade agreement between Colombia and the United States — a free trade agreement that Clinton has publicly opposed as a candidate. Penn claims to have made “an error in judgment” after being criticized for meeting with Carolina Barco Isakson, Colombia's ambassador to the United States, about the proposed pact. Penn suggested that he had conducted the meeting as part of his role as Burson-Marsteller's CEO.

But Barco Isakson was said to have been unclear what hat Penn was wearing — which master he was serving — at the March 31 meeting. Which really doesn’t even matter: Penn's support for the trade agreement, and his work toward getting it done, was an implicit embarrassment for the Clinton campaign, already fighting its own battle with reality and recent Bosnian history.

On Saturday the Colombian government ended its business relationship with Penn and Burson-Marsteller.

On Sunday, Penn got offed from his role as top strategic advisor to the Clinton campaign, although it was later found that Penn still sat in on campaign conference calls with the media, still had a hand in decision-making, and may still continue to draw a salary.

“Don’t blame Penn for everything,” Marc Armbinder said Friday on The And it’s true: this kind of campaign stupid is a hydra-headed beast. Clinton insisted on hiring Penn in the first place, reportedly paying his firm $5 million. And Penn and communications director Howard Wolfson were joined at the hip in some of Team Clinton’s bigger blunders (errors in assessing the strength of Sen. Barack Obama in the Iowa caucuses, and missteps in the branding of their own candidate, among them).

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But the situation may get worse regardless of who gets the blame. Penn’s, er, error in judgment comes in the runup to the primary in Pennsylvania, a state where blue-collar labor is a sizable and passionate percentage of the electorate. Penn’s hiring by Team Clinton looked bad enough last year. Now the Clinton machine faces the sticky problem of explaining the candidate’s opposition to a free trade agreement that many in labor think would be bad for American workers — at the same time her top honcho was taking money from the foreign government that was working to get that agreement done.

This happens, of course, right after Clinton’s tax returns were released — those somewhat inconvenient documents that showed that Hillary and Bill Clinton jointly earned $109 million in the years after leaving the White House (just a little bit more than the take-home pay for a factory worker in Scranton or Harrisburg, the very people Clinton is desperate to woo).

This happens, of course, just before a key primary election; the polls (not Penn’s, you can be sure) show that a once-comfortable double-digit margin between Clinton and Obama is already down to single digits.

"This will only fuel the Clinton-in-disarray narrative, an untimely blow as Pennsylvania looms," Rogan Kersh, a professor of public service at New York University, told Bloomberg’s Lorraine Woellert on Wednesday.

“Microtrends” says the most important trends in the world today are the smallest ones. Note to Mark Penn: What you call “trends” can go by another name. You can also call them “voters.”

Maybe voters like Moose49, blogging at TPM Election Central: "[E]ven George W. Bush recognized it would be a conflict of interest for Karl Rove to keep his consulting business while working on Bush's 2000 campaign. He made Rove sell his interest in the company. Why Hillary wouldn't have made the same demand of Penn — in fact, why should would hire him at all given his obvious incompetence — is beyond me."

Or maybe voters like Howard B., a blogger at the, who found what may be the crux issue for Pennsylvania’s voters — something they may take to heart, and the voting booth, in two weeks:

“[T]he fact that Hillary would A.) hire him in the first place and B.) keep him around far longer than she should have, only confirmed what a really lousy manager she really is.”

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