Monday, April 7, 2008

Mark Penn (Dennis)

Mark Penn, slithering Clinton strategist, exited the campaign today at age 53.

The Clinton campaign, like many defeated superpowers, appears to have lost this war of a campaign without ever losing a major battle. About a year ago today, the hosts of Clinton stood gleaming in the plains of Iowa and New Hamshire. At the front was Clinton herself, with the national political machine built up by herself and her husband over fifteen years as national figures in her party. At her side was Mark Penn, perhaps her closest campaign adviser, and the chief architect of her strategy.

The punditocracy depicted him then as a kind of evil genius, a Democratic version of Karl Rove, who would outflank and crush the pathetic forces of other Democrats. The other campaigns, they calculated, could not withstand the pure brute force of the Hillary divisions with their limitless funding and unprecedented cache (for a non incumbent). Other campaign advisers might not be cynical and calculating enough to exploit these innate advantages to their fullest extent, but Mark Penn was just the type to keep his candidate's eye fully focused on gaining the nomination and not on airy concepts like fairness.

It was at first unclear whether Mark Penn lived up to the tales the press spun, but he always seemed to exceed everyone's worst expectations. While it is certainly true that all campaigns borrow some from Machiavelli, none seemed more open and comfortable with that fact than the Clinton campaign under Penn.* On a political talk show he casually brought up Obama's use of cocaine, and smilingly denied that he had any ill intent. In a time when other candidates were talking about the promise of unity and the appeal of someone who fought for the poor, Penn was happy to let us know that he believed in identifying certain swing segments of the electorate and crafting policies to target them. It may not have been official Clinton gospel, but when voters saw a thousand tax deductions for a thousand different groups in the Clinton plans, Penn's previous statements left little doubt as to the purpose of the proposed policies.

At first the tactics seemed to work, and Clinton was far ahead in every poll, but a snowy caucus in Iowa in January put an end to Penn's initial strategy. Commanders at the head of impressive armies at times imagine themselves invincible and are able to be drawn into battles where they have a disadvantage. For Penn and team Clinton, Iowa was one of those battles. Had Clinton run as a normal candidate competing for the nomination, Clinton could have skipped Iowa, as John McCain and Bill Clinton had, and put all the emphasis on New Hamshire, where they had and advantage.

But it was not to be, they badly exposed themselves in a state where it was easy for less entrenched campaigns to organize quickly. They embarrassed themselves by somehow being the "inevitable" candidate and losing. They then quickly found themselves in an even fight for the nomination.

Penn (and Clinton) did not take this defeat as a chance to recalibrate their strategy. Amazingly, they believed that an even more hard edged campaign was needed. This determination alienated African Americans (who they had previously been winning) and deprived them of any chance of building an unstoppable coalition that would win the vast majority of primary states. They won some battles and they lost others, but they were never able to deliver the crushing blow they needed, especially on Super Tuesday where they had been counting to win an overwhelming victory.

It was about that time that Penn's menacing air became almost comical, like the failed assistant of a villain in a comedy. His tactics became so transparent and guileless that they ceased to be threatening. Penn himself became to perfect bogeyman for Obama supporters to bring up even when legitimate attacks were lobbed at their candidate. The final straw for Penn was his negotiating with a foreign government concerning a trade deal his candidate supposedly opposed. It was the sort of cartoonish villainy that eventually rendered Penn a caricature of himself, and made it necessary for him to shuffle off the scene as a visible campaign operative. I suspect this is the last time a campaign will employ him in such a capacity.

*With the possible exception of our dear friend Mittens.

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