Penned

Democratic Party, liberalism and progressivism

By now you’ve heard that the controversial Mark Penn is no longer the chief strategist of the Clinton campaign. It’s not clear whether Penn has left the Clinton campaign entirely, however.

The breakup, if indeed it is a breakup, occurred because Penn was caught working with Colombia on a free trade deal that the Clinton campaign opposes.

Penn has been behind one blunder or embarrassment after another in the Clinton campaign, and there have been no end of calls from Clinton supporters to get rid of Penn. Yet the Clintons won’t let him go. Why is that? Michael Tomasky has some answers:

[T]here are two people who appear ready to stand by Penn, hell or high water, and they are the two who matter: Bill and Hillary Clinton. Penn joined Bill Clinton in the mid-90s, after the early woes (gays in the military, healthcare), and he kept the president on the ideological middle ground. He did the same for Hillary while overseeing her 2000 Senate campaign. In the course of these experiences, both Clintons came to swear by Penn’s advice. They saw his gift for numbers and demographic analysis, but they failed to grasp his obvious weak point.

Pennism is a kind of Democratic politics that one could argue was right for an era of conservative dominance: take few risks, and move as far to the centre and even right as possible so you couldn’t be labelled soft on defence or wobbly on support for the free market.

But George Bush and Karl Rove have seen to it that, after Iraq and Katrina and the US attorneys scandal and now a real-life recession, we are no longer in an era of conservative dominance. We’re not in an era of liberal dominance either, of course, but we are in a place where, for the first time in a very long time, conservatism has discredited itself, and more Americans are open to progressive alternatives. This was apparent to anyone paying attention in September 2005, after the tragedy of New Orleans.

But it wasn’t apparent to Penn. And by extension we can conclude it wasn’t apparent to the Clintons either (revealing, considering Bill’s alleged political genius). Hillary’s refusal to renounce her vote in support of the Iraq war – a refusal that I have no doubt was based on Penn’s advice, on the grounds that she had to continue to show she could be “tough” on foreign policy – was a disaster for her, as was the vote itself. If, in a few weeks’ time, we’re writing Clinton campaign post-mortems, her handling of Iraq will be deservedly high on the list of errata, and it was classic Pennism.

Tomasky’s column sums up my biggest concern about Senator Clinton. If Clinton becomes president, I fear she will continue the famous “triangulation” pattern that assumes the Right still controls public opinion, and progressivism will have missed a huge opportunity. What progressives need right now is someone who can communicate our values and ideals and inspire a disenchanted America to embrace them. That person is not Senator Clinton.

Yesterday while I was looking for something else I came across an old Mahablog post from January 2006 in which I said netroots progressives would not support Hillary Clinton. Clearly I was wrong about how much support she would get, although I still find it baffling that any progressive would support her. In this I quote a post by Chris Bowers, also from January 2006, titled “Why The Blogosphere and the Netroots Do Not Like Hillary Clinton,” and one by Stirling Newberry from November 2005, no longer online, in which he said “Hillary Clinton as a disaster for progressives and ultimately for the Democratic Party.”

The Clinton campaign hasn’t shown me any reason to change my mind.

Update: See also Jonathan Chait.

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7 Comments

7 Comments

  1. uncledad  •  Apr 7, 2008 @2:12 pm

    You gotta wonder how effective a manager she could be when, she has as her chief statigest a man who also heads a consulting company. Wouldn’t you think she (HRC) would want a list of all the concerns Penn was “consulting” on to make sure no conflicts existed? I tend to think HRC knew about his “consulting” on the columbia deal but was willing to look the other way as long as the press didn’t find out.

    She should have sacked him long ago when he was bringing up BHO’s alleged drug use on national TV. I think that was when her campaign really hit the ditch! As an Obama supporter Im glad she kept him on, its been good for his campaign!

  2. Yeah, I could never understand why she’d stick with Penn when the list of trustworthy Democratic consultants not already hired by other campaigns is so damn long. Why there’s…. And there’s …. And… Er… Well, I hear Bob Shrum is still available!

  3. sniflheim  •  Apr 7, 2008 @9:35 pm

    Sure I’d be glad to miss him (if he would go way). Meanwhile check out the box-office magic coming soon from Obama’s U. of Chicago braintrust.

  4. cgeye  •  Apr 8, 2008 @1:30 pm

    “libertarian paternalism”? whoa, doggie — that sounds like the usual Straussian smoke-and-mirrors — the elite, through government deregulation, gets to do what it wants, when it wants, but makes sure the lumpen proles get the illusion of choice.

    No one’s said whether his advisors or Mrs. Obama are Straussians — will it be too late, in August or November, to start having *that* important conversation?

  5. Ed  •  Apr 8, 2008 @3:44 pm

    What is surprising about the progressive netroots is the vehemence and intolerance being aimed at other progressives with a different perspective. Certain Clinton supporting sites and their comment communities seem incapable of reasonable arguments based on facts.

    I watched a 9 minute pro Hillary video posted on Talk Left and Shakespeare’s Sister that should be titled Triumph of the Hill. Like propaganda is supposed to do it left comment posters in a highly emotional state. Granted there is plenty of sexist bullshit in our society but criticism of Hillary or Geraldine Ferraro is not equal to sexism if based on sound reasons. Keith Olberman and Josh Marshall are currently targets of vitriol from what had once been considered progressive websites which would usually be reserved for Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity.

    Shouldn’t we win back the country first before turning up a nose at doctrinal incorrectness. (I used the term political incorrectness commenting on the evisceration of Josh Marshall on Shakespeare’s Sister and I was, ahem, chastised).

    I have become an Obama supporter over the course of the campaign and where I once felt Hillary was given a bum wrap, her pro McCain comments ended any such sympathies. With Mark Penn she reaped as she sowed.

  6. maha  •  Apr 8, 2008 @4:26 pm

    No one’s said whether his advisors or Mrs. Obama are Straussians

    They aren’t. Chill.

  7. WereBear  •  Apr 9, 2008 @1:49 pm

    Penn is the biggest symptom of what I feel is a disease of both Clintons; they have not kept up with the times.

    Triangulation is out, making fun of Republicans is in.

    People have had over a decade to think about certain things, and come to a conclusion. The same magic tricks that distracted them at the time are wearing thin.

    A substantial portion of the electorate have moved their buttons, and the Clintons keeping poking places that get no reaction.

    I mean, losing some 30 points over the course of your campaign? And then keeping on doing the same things?

    Either she won’t adapt or she can’t adapt, and either way, that means she’s not evolved enough to be President.