A Penn-Less Pennsylvania For Clinton

Mark Penn, chief strategist for Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign, quit Sunday.

The official reason: his meeting last Monday with the Colombian ambassador in Washington to discuss strategy to pass the U.S.-Colombia free trade pact that Sen. Clinton vehemently opposes.

Why was Penn meeting with the Colombians?

Because he's always had another job as chief executive of Burson Marsteller Worldwide. Burson, you see, has a lucrative contract with the Colombian government to win congressional passage of the bilateral trade deal. Penn met with the Colombian government within hours of a Clinton speech to the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO in which she pledged to fight the trade deal in part because the Colombian government beats and intimidates union organizers.

Having your chief strategist plot strategy to pass a trade deal you oppose for reasons of economic and bedrock politics is, how should we say, awkward.

Penn bargained successfully for his job Friday, when the story first broke in The Wall Street Journal. He sent around apologetic e-mails to senior staff and apologized to Clinton by phone. The typically air-tight Clinton campaign was authorized to speak on background that Clinton and her senior staff were furious at Penn -- a clear sign his days might be numbered.

Pressure built over the weekend as members of Congress with strong union ties and top union officials demanded swift action against Penn. Friends of Clinton had long disagreed with Penn's strategy. Specifically, they questioned whether his obsessive tendency to slice and dice the electorate into microscopic sub-groups suitable for micro-targeted appeals was sufficient to compete against a full-fledged social movement in Barack Obama.

Those tensions had boiled under the surface for months and Clinton's top delegate hunter, Harold Ickes, and her top ad consultant, Mandy Grunwald, had long been gunning for Penn. "Harold and Mandy must be very happy tonight," a top Democratic source on Capitol Hill told The Bourbon Room on Sunday.

But Penn retained the unflinching loyalty of former President Bill Clinton, for whom he polled and offered strategic advice after Republicans took control of Congress in 1994. Hillary also favored Penn for his work on her first and second campaigns for the U.S. Senate.

So why dump Penn this close to Pennsylvania where so much -- dare I say everything -- rides on a Clinton victory?

The campaign won't say anything more than the meeting with the Colombian government was viewed as an unpardonable act of poor judgment (it won't say betrayal but other Democrats not affiliated with the campaign do). The deeper reason, according to several top Democrats close to the Clinton camp, is that Penn's continuation with the campaign threatened to disrupt the flow of money and the status of Super Delegates already committed to Hillary or those with whom she is actively negotiating support.

Clinton can't afford a slow-down in fundraising. She needs every penny she can raise for the primary and her ability in February and March to solicit funds for the general election may make for decent fundraising headlines, but it doesn't pay the bills now. And paying the bills now is Clinton's top priority. Why? Because campaigns don't end when the candidate decides he/she has had enough (because he/she never has enough). Campaigns end when the candidate can't pay to keep the lights on.

Clinton also can't stand any superdelegate defections or to suddenly have dozens of supers on the "negotiation" line suddenly stop answering their phones or ignoring Hillary's e-mails. Money and superdelegates were about to slip away from Hillary if she kept Penn.

His departure, by the way, was not cause for panic, concern, alarm, remorse, regret, sadness, nostalgia or nausea in Hillaryland. Indeed, those were the reactions to Penn's continued presence.

"Penn will always be linked to one strategic approach and one strategic approach only for Hillary's campaign," said Tony Coelho, former campaign manager for Al Gore in 2000. "And that was inevitability.

Penn cast Hillary as inevitable and everything flowed from that. But inevitable became imperial and began to hurt her. And then as the inevitable one, she didn't compete in caucuses because she wouldn't need them. If she had competed in those caucuses she would have won some and finished strong in the rest and would be ahead in delegates now. But Penn was all about inevitability. That drove institutional money to Hillary but it also drove grassroots money to Obama."

Chris Kofinis served as John Edwards' communications director and said the Edwards camp never understood Clinton's approach to the race as the candidate of inevitability.

"Who roots for the inevitable candidate," Kofinis asked. "It's like Saturday's NCAA national semi-final. Everyone expected North Carolina to wipe the floor with Kansas. So who do people cheer for? Kansas."

Kofinis said Clinton's pitch as the inevitable candidate helped her consolidate her base but left little or no room to expand the base. "Inevitability isn't a rationale to vote for someone."

Clinton adopted other approaches and campaign pitches, of course. She keyed on experience and results-oriented solutions. She then cast herself as a fighter .

She's now casting herself as the manager of the Democrats' Buyer's Remorse Emporium. All of these appeals to voters came after the bubble of inevitability burst.

"Where campaigns end has a lot to do with where they begin," Coelho said. "That's where this one began."

Coelho said he believes Obama could win Pennsylvania. As I write that, Dick Bennett at American Research Group, has just released a poll in Pennyslvania that shows Clinton and Obama tied at 45 percent. ARG's numbers have been shaky this year but this is the second poll since Wednesday to show the race tied. Several other polls have showed Clinton's lead shrinking. Whether the race is actually tied or not is less important than the inescapable truth that the trend favors Obama.

Every Democrat I talk to believes if Clinton loses Pennyslvania the race ends there. Why? Because Clinton has defined it as a can't-lose, must-win state and Democrats eager to end the prolonged battle for the nomination will conclude Obama can win a "big state."

More importantly, they will conclude that Democrats in an ethnically, economically, educationally and religiously diverse state will have sized up the candidates and the race and said we know the deal, and the race ends now. Obama's the nominee. Let's fight the Republicans.

The coverage of Penn's departure will play up the sense of chaos and disorder at Hillary's headquarters in Arlington, Va.

I have a different take. I believe Penn's departure, while bad for headlines, could be good for the candidate and very good for her over-worked and beleaguered senior staff.

If Penn's detractors are to believed, he had a suffocating effect on Clinton's team, more probably than she fully realized. It is possible that those in Hillaryland who have smoldered for weeks or months about Penn's approach to the campaign will find new freedom and new energy and the campaign will find within itself a sense of possibility and renewal. We will know the answer to this question within a week in terms of Clinton's speeches and ads.

Democratic strategist Mary Anne Marsh believes that's already happened with Clinton's crisper and more economically focused stump speech. Clinton has also looked fresher and more inventive with ideas last to woo on-line donors by having them direct where in Pennsylvania their contribution will be spent and a new ad in North Carolina (where Clinton trails) soliciting questions about the economy that Clinton will answer in subsequent TV spots (yes, that's a canned conversation, but it at least has a bit more flair than the standard TV spots and offers the prospect of more ads, signaling the campaign isn't on its deathbed). If ever a campaign needed a blast of energy, enthusiasm and rebirth, it's this one. Penn's exit offers that possibility. But only that.

The more conventional analysis of Penn's ouster is that the smell of death will overwhelm the staff and they will grow ever more morose at the loss of their chief scapegoat. That depression will only deepen into lethargy, the theory goes, with the realization that Penn's heading back to his mega-bucks job at Burson while their own resumes and reputations will be forever smudged (tainted?) by the massive failure of the most "inevitable" campaign in American presidential history.