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Let's say that the Democratic nomination battle had been winnowed down to two candidates, and that one of those two candidates (let's call him Barack Obama) was a huge favorite to win. Meanwhile, the GOP nominee has been all but decided. (We'll call him John McCain.)

Now let's imagine that Obama's opponent (we'll call her Hillary Clinton) was desperately slinging every piece of mud she could at him without regard to whether or not her attacks would help John McCain.

Finally, imagine that you found out that Clinton's chief strategist was not only her campaign's leading advocate for these attacks -- but was also the CEO of a public affairs firm whose DC-based lobbying subsidiary was headed up by John McCain's top adviser.

Would you say this posed at least the appearance of a conflict of interest for the strategist in question?

What would you think if you found out that it's all true?

Well, it is true.

Hillary Clinton's chief strategist is Mark Penn, and Charlie Black, John McCain's top adviser, is chairman of BKSH, the DC-based lobbying subsidiary of Burson-Marsteller -- of which Mark Penn is CEO.

Yes, this is the same lobbyist Barack Obama was referring to when he criticized John McCain for allowing lobbyists to conduct their business on board his bus.

BKSH is a bipartisan lobbying firm. Black, the chairman is the top Republican. The top Democrat is R. Scott Pastrick, who like Penn, supports Hillary Clinton.

Mark Penn's personal interests would clearly be best served by a Hillary Clinton victory.

A McCain presidency wouldn't be a bad consolation prize, however. It would be far better to have the head of his lobbying be tight with the president than to have a president like Obama who sought to impose new restrictions on his lobbyist operation.

Burson-Marsteller's work is primarily for corporations, ranging from Blackwater to Microsoft to the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority, the sovereign wealth fund of the government of Abu Dhabi that recently purchased a 5% stake in Citigroup.

As Ari Berman's Hillary, Inc. details, there's every reason to be skeptical of Mark Penn's willingness to help Democrats. He's criticized Al Gore for running to far to the left in 2000 and when he was brought into the Clinton's orbit by Dick Morris, he wasn't even a political operative.

::

As the New York Times has reported, Mark Penn is the leading advocate within the Hillary Clinton campaign for her decision to go nuclear on Barack Obama. Mandy Grunwald, a Democratic political consultant, recommended against the Penn strategy, but Thursday night's debate closing notwithstanding, Grunwald seems to have lost the battle to Penn.

In the past ten days or so, Hillary Clinton has gone nuclear on Barack Obama too many times to count.

On at least four of those occasions, her attacks have echoed a nearly identical attack from John McCain's campaign (or is it vice versa?).

  1. Plagiarism-gate: Before the Deval Patrick brouhaha, the McCain and Clinton camps both accused Obama of "stealing" policy proposals from Clinton in Wisconsin.
  1. Both Clinton and McCain have challenged Obama's readiness to be commander in chief.
  1. After Thursday's debate, both Clinton and McCain attacked Obama on Cuba.
  1. Clinton's mocking attack today was very similar in tone to McCain's mocking attack after the Potomac Primary.

::

These are all tough attacks but the worst of the bunch is Clinton's decision to join McCain in challenging Obama's fitness to be commander in chief.

This kind of attack has such power because if it is successful, it effectively disqualifies Obama from winning the election. Fortunately, Obama is plenty tough and can stand up to Hillary's attacks, but she is still running the risk of causing serious damage to Obama because when Democrats attack Democrats it's different than when Republicans attack Democrats. Voters expect members of either party to attack one another -- but when someone directs a significant attack inwards, it does real damage. This is why we needed to expell Joe Lieberman from the party.

Republicans are eating up Clinton's attacks:

   If it is any consolation to Mrs. Clinton, the Republican National Committee and Senator John McCain of Arizona, his party’s likely nominee, are trying much the same lines of attack as the ones she has used. The committee issued a series of talking points to party leaders, first reported on the political Web site Politico.com, that contended Mr. Obama’s "greatest weakness is inexperience. He is not ready to be commander in chief. He is not ready to be president."

   Republican Party officials and aides to Mr. McCain cautioned it would be a mistake to assume that what did not work for Mrs. Clinton would not work for Mr. McCain either. Mr. McCain is a different messenger — a war hero whose foreign policy credentials are well-established — and the audience for him is a general electorate, which could be quite different than the Democratic primary voters who are now the audience for Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama.

   "I think it’s the difference between their party and our party," said Robert M. Duncan, the chairman of the Republican National Committee. "They have a more liberal constituency. And the country is center-right."

Making things worse, Clinton's campaign is making the case that McCain would be a stronger President than Obama.

Both Sen. Hillary Clinton, his rival in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination, and Sen. John McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee, are arguing that Mr. Obama, who has no military background and few foreign-policy credentials, is ill-equipped to serve as commander in chief. Both say he would stack up poorly next to Mr. McCain, a Vietnam War hero who has been involved in many foreign-policy debates during his Senate career.

::

The "fitness" attack is tough enough when it comes from just the Republicans. Now that we're so close to having a nominee, there's just no reason for Hillary Clinton to be leveling the same charge.

And it stinks to high heaven when the two sources quoted by the Wall Street Journal about the parallel attacks are -- you guessed it -- Mark Penn and Charlie Black.

Should Mr. Obama win the Democratic nomination, Mr. McCain plans to press the issue throughout the year. "It will be one of our major themes, certainly," said Charlie Black, a senior McCain adviser. On Tuesday night, in a thinly veiled reference to Mr. Obama, Mr. McCain asked if the nation is prepared to risk "the confused leadership of an inexperienced candidate."

(snip)

Chief Clinton strategist Mark Penn said yesterday that she is the only Democrat in the race "ready to be commander in chief." And he argued that Mr. McCain would be able to exploit Mr. Obama's weakness in a general election.

Mr. Penn told reporters that there was a "very stark choice" between Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama, who he said had little experience in national security and had been in the Senate for only a short time.

It's tag-teaming Burson-Marsteller style.

::

In recent days, Hillary Clinton's actions have challenged my faith in her dedication to the Democratic Party as opposed to her own self-interest. Worse, she has seriously eroded my confidence in her judgment.

Even if her current scorched earth strategy is the correct one, she must realize how bad it looks to have her chief strategist taking the lead on an attack strategy that will benefit his financial self-interest even if Clinton loses the nomination.

For obvious reasons, the right wing isn't attacking Charlie Black's relationship with Mark Penn -- it seems to be working in their favor.

Can you imagine what would happen if it were the other way around?

Originally posted to JedReport on Sun Feb 24, 2008 at 08:14 PM PST.

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