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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Mark Penn’s Really Bad Week

The big political news this Monday morning is last night’s announcement by Hillary Clinton’s campaign that Mark Penn was being “demoted” from his role as Chief Strategist for HRC, though he’ll apparently continue to do some residual polling. It took nearly a week, but the move was clearly the result of Penn’s meeting last Monday with the Colombian ambassador to discuss the status of congressional action on a free trade agreement with the U.S. Penn is CEO of the public relations giant Burson-Marsteller, which has a $300,000 contract with the Bogota government. Given the Clinton campaign’s criticism last month of a meeting with Canadian consular officials by Obama economic advisor Austan Goolsbee to discuss the future of NAFTA, Penn’s departure is hardly a big surprise.
It was a really bad week for Penn, since the Colombians promptly canceled their contract wth Burson-Marsteller after the story broke.
Readers who don’t know Mark Penn from Pennzoil may wonder why this staff change is being treated as such a big deal. It’s pretty simple: Penn has long become the symbol of pretty much everything about the Clinton campaign that its detractors, and even many of its supporters, don’t like: its alleged arrogance, its corporate-friendliness, its “poll-driven” lack of passion, and its early strategy of depicting the candidate as “inevitable.” Labor folk have been angry for a good while about Penn’s continued leadership of Burson-Marsteller, which makes a fair amount of money advising corporations on how to fight unions. And a lot of people towards the left end of the party have strongly disliked Penn for years dating back to his partnership with Dick Morris in the Clinton White House and the 1996 Clinton-Gore campaign, not to mention his role in Joe Lieberman’s 2004 presidential run.
At this very late date, it’s hard to imagine that Penn’s departure will make a lot of difference to Clinton’s campaign. But I’d expect we’ll soon start hearing stories that the move has miraculously revived campaign morale; they could use some signs of positive motivation right now, real or contrived. So Penn’s unhappy moment in the political spotlight may continue for a while yet.

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