Monday, April 07, 2008

Blame the Clintons, not Mark Penn

The Clintons were reportedly shocked, shocked to learn this weekend that chief strategist Mark Penn had recently donned his other hat - as CEO of a global consulting firm - and sought to lobby on behalf of a client for a trade treaty that Hillary opposes on the campaign trail. The Clintons let it be known that they were "angry" with Penn, and last night they made it clear that Penn will no longer pilot Hillary's lurching ship.

Most voters don't really care when a campaign plays musical chairs with its personnel. As the CEO of Burson-Marsteller, Penn is clearly a prominent figure among his farflung corporate clients (including Countrywide Financial, our top mortgage lender; Blackwater Worldwide, the security mercenaries who have been blamed for reckless and deadly actions in Iraq, Shell Oil, Pfizer and many others), but he is hardly a household name to the American electorate. So I am less interested in Penn than what Penn's rise and fall tells us about Hillary Clinton herself, and about the boneheaded fundamentals of her campaign. Penn has not been the source of her woes, only a symptom.

Ever since her campaign was launched, she and Bill have condoned and tolerated Penn's dubious dual role. They appeared not to understand their own problem, that it might be difficult to sell Hillary as the candidate of "change" when their own chief strategist was so enmeshed in the special-interest world of Washington. Clearly, they never demanded that Penn, as a condition of his campaign employment, step down from his executive position and thus distance himself financially from clients whose business needs might clash with Hillary's political needs.

Heck, even Karl Rove did that; in fact, Rove did better than that. Back in 1999, at the dawn of George W. Bush's excellent adventure, Rove sold off his Texas consulting firm, and thus avoided all conflict of interest charges during the subsequent campaign. One might have assumed that a Democratic candidate - who bills herself as a fighter against the special interests - would insist that Penn work out a similar arrangement. But no.

So, not surprisingly, there was a report last Friday that Penn met with one of his clients, the government of Colombia, for the purpose of helping Colombia secure passage of a bilateral trade treaty that Hillary has publicly opposed because she believes it hurts American workers. Colombia signed up Penn last year; the contract was worth $300,000. There would have been no such contract last year if the Clintons had insisted in advance that Penn wear only his campaign hat, at least for the duration of the campaign.

And, lest we get caught up only in the present moment, it's important to remember that this Colombia episode is hardly the first Penn flap. Nearly a year ago, the news surfaced that Burson-Marsteller was fond of advertising its expertise in the art of union-busting. In other words, at a time when Hillary was trying to sell herself as a fighter on behalf of the average worker, her chief strategist's lobbying firm was helping corporations thwart the organizing efforts of unions that sought to help the average worker.

For instance, as reporter Ari Berman documented last spring, Penn's firm counseled Cintas, a leading laundry supply company, in its persistent efforts to block its workers from organizing. (The chief officer of Cintas, by the way, had long been a leading fundraiser for Bush.) Penn, in his defense, later said that, notwithstanding his position as CEO of the firm, he had never "personally participated" in offering any union-busting advice. Clearly, however, Burson-Marseller did not enjoy being outed; last year, the firm also erased, from its website, all references to its union-busting expertise.

The important point here is that even after these embarrassing stories surfaced, and even after a number of prominent national union leaders complained in writing to the Clintons about Penn's conflicts and the mixed campaign message that his conflicts implied, nothing changed. The Clintons didn't force Penn to make any changes. And Penn continued to wear his two hats, thereby laying the groundwork for the most recent political embarrassment. At a time when Hillary's campaign may well hinge on whether she can bond successfully on April 22 with Pennsylvania's downtrodden workers, it didn't help that her chief strategist was trying to feather his own nest by working a trade deal deemed hurtful to workers.

So the Clinton's purported fury with Penn is badly misplaced. They enabled Penn from the beginning, and thereby made it easier for Barack Obama to capture the "change" label and tie Hillary to the "status quo." They have only themselves to blame. (Meanwhile, they're still allowing Penn to keep polling for the campaign.)

And they certainly can't blame Penn for Hillary's latest credibility embarrassment. She managed this one all by herself.

For weeks on the campaign trail, Hillary has been repeating an anecdote ("I heard a story that just kinda haunted me...") about an uninsured Ohio woman, Trina Bachtel, who lost her baby and died because a hospital turned her away; according to Hillary, the woman was denied care because she failed to come up with a $100 fee. You can see the yarn in action on video.

Well, it turns out that Hillary's tear-jerker was wrong in most key respects: (a) the woman was actually insured, (b) the woman was not refused medical care, (c) the woman - who did die after her baby was stillborn - was under the care of an obstetrician affiliated with a hospital. And that purported $100 fee? That's as true as Hillary's snipers.

The fact is, Hillary did "hear a story." As an Ohio newspaper reported on Friday, and as the New York Times followed up on Saturday, some sheriff's deputy in Ohio first told Hillary a second-hand yarn about what he had heard about Bachtel. But he got most of the facts wrong...and Hillary didn't bother to have the facts checked out by her staff before doing a rhetorical polish on the stump.

On Saturday, the Clinton campaign promised to excise the Bachtel yarn from the standard stump speech. In all probability, this incident will now be trumped by the news of Mark Penn's departure as chief strategist. But both stories are essentially the same, in this respect: it is the candidate who is ultimately responsible for campaign quality control.