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.