Late Sunday evening, the Clinton campaign confirmed that Mark Penn was stepping down as chief strategist in the wake of his dust-up with the Colombian government. That his tenure at the helm of the campaign ended because of a connection to a Burson-Marsteller client is not terribly surprising. But there were plenty of reasons, far better than this one, to have fired Penn many months before.
Penn presided over a top-down campaign in which, to the surprise of most observers, he was responsible for both crafting the message and polling its effectiveness. Normally frowned upon, such an approach often leads to self-fulfilling polling that validates the assumptions of the strategist, rather than providing an objective assessment. Perhaps that is the best explanation for a series of horribly misguided message strategies that Penn employed.
There was the now infamous inevitability argument, a message that ramped expectations to heights that Clinton could never have expected to meet. There was the change vs. experience message, one that helped validate Obama’s persona as the change candidate. And of course, when times got tough, there was the "Let’s get real" message. Showing a clear sign that the campaign did not understand its opponent, this message criticized Obama supporters rather than Obama himself, driving the wedge further between the candidate and the voters she needed to persuade.
But Penn chose not to confine his incompetence strictly to messaging, allowing it to invade all parts of the campaign strategy. His decision to forego caucus states demonstrated a glaring misunderstanding of the delegate allocation process. In a system in which losses must be minimized and wins inflated, Penn surrendered essential turf. It is equally surprising that someone who perceived his candidate as having enormous weaknesses in caucuses would have steered the campaign directly into the Iowa caucus. Had Deputy Campaign Manager Mike Henry’s recommendation been adopted -- that Clinton forego Iowa -- she may well have earned the nomination months ago.
As a chief strategist, Penn consistently proved to be a disappointing spokesperson. His mannerisms and tone on television suggest an abiding arrogance; he is often described as unsavory and unpleasant. While on Hardball, he was chastised by Joe Trippi for invoking the word "cocaine" while talking about Senator Obama. When paired with Obama strategist David Axelrod, Penn seemed unable to control his disdain.
Even when he wasn’t speaking for the campaign, he too often found himself at the center of the story. Private infighting with staff was often public and unprofessional, with uncomfortable details making front page news on multiple occasions.
Having not taken a leave from being Worldwide CEO of Burson-Marsteller, Penn set himself up for a number of potentially harmful situations for the Clinton campaign. His moonlighting for anti-union companies and other controversial organizations were an issue throughout the campaign, culminating this past week when he met with the Colombian Ambassador. The Colombian Embassy had hired Penn’s firm to help pass a trade deal that Clinton opposes. Last night’s resignation was the eventual result.
There were a number of reasons to fire Mark Penn, not the least of which was his obvious incompetence. But more than anything else, Mark Penn deserved to be fired because he viewed Hillary Clinton as just another client. Who wouldn’t want a chance to elect someone president, a chance to leave a permanent mark and a lasting legacy? But for Penn, the Clinton campaign was just a client who purchased his services, no different than the Colombian government, or Exelon, or Blackwater.
So much of what was wrong with her was him.
Mark Penn should have been fired back in September and again in January. He should have been fired after Super Tuesday, and fired after the eleven contests that followed. He should have been fired before Texas and Ohio, and fired twice after. Instead, he wasn’t fired until April 6th, two weeks before the Pennsylvania primary, when no change in strategy could possibly change the outcome.