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The Errors Haunting Clinton

Mark Penn, former chief strategist for Hillary Clinton.
Mark Penn, former chief strategist for Hillary Clinton. (By Melina Mara -- The Washington Post)

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By E. J. Dionne Jr.
Tuesday, April 8, 2008

The most striking critiques of Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign have come not from her opponents or her enemies but from her most loyal friends.

Since December, I have been hearing a steady stream of worries from Clinton partisans who took Barack Obama's challenge seriously from the start. These loyalists felt her campaign was misreading the nature of the political year, the state of the Democratic Party, the organizational requirements of a long struggle for the nomination and the complexity of the party's attitudes toward both the candidate and former president Clinton.

The immediate cause of Mark Penn's departure as Hillary Clinton's chief strategist was his private work on behalf of a Colombian free-trade agreement that Clinton opposes. But the fact that Penn could not hold on to his privileged position is a reflection of problems that plagued the Clinton campaign even before it lost the Iowa caucuses in early January.

The failure in Iowa, which allowed Obama's candidacy to take off, was Clinton's original strategic sin. Clinton's advisers were ambivalent about competing in the state. They worried that her vote to authorize the war in Iraq would make it hard for her to win in a place whose caucus-going Democrats are, on the whole, staunchly antiwar.

According to a leaked internal memo, Clinton advisers considered skipping Iowa altogether. Instead, her lieutenants were sluggish in organizing in the state and then, realizing the dangers of losing it to Obama, poured in resources -- thus depleting her coffers for the fights to come. Her campaign seemed to have only two speeds: overconfidence and panic.

Clinton's surprise comeback in New Hampshire looks ironic in retrospect. Many attributed the victory to an emotional and revelatory moment in which Clinton choked up at a campaign event and declared: "This is very personal for me; it's not just political."

Defying the false assumption that she was an unfeeling political automaton was one crucial element to Clinton's victory. Her win may have saved Penn's job at the time. Yet, according to his critics inside the campaign, it was Penn who had resisted counsel that Clinton needed to show her human side.

Penn may also be the one and only political consultant who hurt himself by publishing a successful book in the course of a political campaign.

His "Microtrends: The Small Forces Behind Tomorrow's Big Changes," published last fall, still ranks high in Amazon.com's category lists for "demography," "advertising," and "systems and planning." But the book -- co-written by E. Kinney Zalesne -- underscored Penn's skepticism of large and overarching themes. "Grandiose" is one of Penn's preferred epithets, and he believes passionately in accumulating small subgroups in the electorate into a majority.

His book describes more than 70 trend groups with pithy names such as "Modern Mary Poppinses," "Social Geeks," "Archery Moms," "Shy Millionaires" and "Numbers Junkies." One of Penn's groups, "Impressionable Elites," has proved to be mightily impressed with Barack Obama. When Obama started winning on the basis of a sweeping message of hope, inclusion and national unity, the merits of micro-politics came into question.

And Penn committed another sin that, in truth, affected the entire Clinton apparatus: believing that Obama would be trumped by Hillary Clinton's "inevitability" and that media messaging could overpower organization. This meant that the Clinton campaign was, to be charitable, underorganized. During a visit to Little Rock a few days ago, I heard tales of woe from people who truly love Hillary and Bill Clinton but were astonished at her campaign's internal shortcomings.

Obama's team is well known for its use of new technologies to raise money, engage volunteers and spread his gospel in unorthodox ways. Yet equally important has been Obama's own old-fashioned version of micro-politics.

He built local organizations all over the country, especially in the overlapping groups of smaller states and those holding caucuses. He won most of the small states that voted on Feb. 5, the Super Tuesday primaries that the Clinton camp thought would secure her the nomination, and he swept the states that voted in the weeks immediately after. Much of Obama's current lead was amassed in that period.

Not all of these problems can be laid at Penn's feet. But he did come to symbolize a campaign that was much given to infighting and failed to understand the new energies unleashed in the Democratic Party by the reaction against George W. Bush. It did not grasp early enough how much politics has changed since the Clinton '90s. The post-Penn Clinton campaign has only a little time and a narrow window to make up for these mistakes.

postchat@aol.com


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