Mark Penn, Designated Scapegoat?

[ Posted Wednesday, April 9th, 2008 – 15:04 UTC ]

Could the recent firing (or, more accurately, recent demotion) of Mark Penn, architect of Hillary Clinton's campaign, save the party's chances in the general election? Has he, in other words, been designated at the official scapegoat for the campaign's viciousness? And will he serve this position well, becoming the lightning rod for Democratic voters to vent their anger and frustration on, rather than the eventual nominee?

Call him a scapegoat, lightning rod, whipping boy, or even sacrificial lamb (choose your own metaphor, in other words), but no matter who the nominee is, will he give sufficient cover so this eventual nominee can unite Democratic voters to produce a win in November?

I personally prefer the term "scapegoat," which we get from a mistranslation of the Bible. The "escape goat" or "scapegoat" comes from a sacrifice made in Leviticus 16. All of the sins of the people were placed on the goat's head, and it was driven out into the wilderness in atonement. The question becomes: can Mark Penn be an adequate scapegoat for the Democratic Party this fall?

The storyline so far (for those not paying attention) is that Mark Penn had been running Clinton's campaign until last week, which gave him veto power over all aspects of "the message" they put out. This gave him enormous influence and also built up serious resentment against him by others in the campaign. But Clinton stuck with him, up until the revelation that he had been working for the nation of Columbia to help them get a free trade agreement through the U.S. Congress -- a free trade agreement that (inconveniently) Clinton is publicly against. This normally wouldn't have been that big a deal (things like this happen all the time inside the Beltway), except for two problems. The next state to vote is Pennsylvania -- with a large percentage of union voters who might be turned off by this story. And Clinton has been hammering Obama over (as she tells it) one of his aides meeting with the Canadian government to reassure them that Obama didn't really mean what he was saying about changing NAFTA.

Because of these unfortunate problems confronting Clinton, she decided to get rid of Penn. Kind of. He's now just "one among many" top advisors to her campaign, and no longer has veto power over the message. In clear terms he wasn't fired, he was demoted.

Penn's role will now be taken over by Howard Wolfson, and the newly-acquired Geoff Garin. It's interesting to see the spin already being put on Penn's ouster. From a recent New York Times article:

Mr. Garin, 54, joined the Clinton campaign several weeks ago to augment strategy. His elevation could herald a less negative tone as the candidate tries to catch Mr. Obama.

Inside the Clinton team, Mr. Penn advocated increasingly sharp attacks on Mr. Obama as Mrs. Clinton's best option. Long before he joined the campaign, Mr. Garin argued that her route to success lay more in presenting her strengths than in assailing her opponent.

Translated, this means that Penn may be held up as the reason Clinton's campaign went so negative in the past few months. "Penn made us do it" in other words, thus reinventing Hillary as above such nasty campaigning, laying it all at his feet instead.

This is an interesting move for Clinton, and one which may mean she is looking further ahead than just this campaign, to her own political future. Or it could truly be an effort to reunite the party by distancing herself from the mudslinging -- which will help the party whether she's the nominee or not. Again, from the New York Times article:

An ardent fan of the Washington Nationals, Mr. Garin cast his campaign role as that of "the seventh-inning guy, instead of the starter." But his genial relationships throughout the party may offer some reassurance that the endgame of the nomination fight will not prove as damaging to Democratic hopes in the fall as some have feared.

"I don't want there to be a thermonuclear climax," he said. "Senator Clinton is committed to having a united Democratic Party at the end of this process. Senator Obama is committed to having a united Democratic Party at the end of this process. And we will have a united Democratic Party at the end of this process."

There are only two possible outcomes at the convention: Hillary wins, or Obama wins. Without examining the relative probability of either of these outcomes actually occurring, it's easy to see that this sort of talk will help the party either way.

Because it will offer a gentle way out of the corner Hillary and Obama are jointly painting themselves in with the voters. It's not an exaggeration to say that as of right now, there are Hillary-haters in the Democratic Party, and there are Barack-haters. Something like twenty percent of Clinton voters say they will vote for McCain if Obama is chosen, and twenty percent of Obama voters say the same thing if Clinton wins the nomination. This is extremely worrisome for the party's chances, no matter who the eventual nominee.

But Penn's story, and Garin's statements, present a new scenario instead. If what Garin says is true, and Hillary (from this point forward) starts running a campaign that is not interested in attacking Obama, but rather is striving to show she is the best possible candidate -- an eminently respectful campaign, in other words -- this could go a long way toward ending the animosity in the party rank and file.

Let's say Hillary gets the nomination. She can throw herself on the mercy of the Obama voters, say "all that negative stuff was Penn's fault, which is why I removed him as campaign leader," and hope that the Obamamaniacs will give her the benefit of the doubt in November, rather than staying home or voting for McCain.

If Barack wins the nomination, Hillary can say, "the last weeks of the campaign showed my true feelings and party loyalty, after we got rid of the negative influence of Mark Penn, and I urge my supporters to vote for Barack Obama." Clintonistas, hearing such words from her mouth, may also be much more inclined to bury the hatchet and vote for Barack in November.

Of course, this is all sheer speculation on my part. The grudges (on both sides) may be too deeply held at this point to shove off onto Mark Penn -- whom most voters have never even heard of. Hillary's refusal to flat-out fire him instead of demoting him may hinder the chances of this happening, too. And the loyalties voters feel for both candidates at this point may be too overwhelming and create such an enormous amount of resentment that a large number of them may indeed stay home in November. I don't believe that many of them will actually vote for McCain (once they calm down and start thinking about Supreme Court appointments), but I can see many of them dispirited enough that they just won't bother to vote.

But maybe, just maybe, Mark Penn's ouster at the top of the Clinton campaign could be the silver lining to the cloud of divisiveness which has been steadily growing over the Democratic Party. Maybe the sins of the campaign can be laid on his head effectively enough to divert resentment of the Clinton campaign's tactics so far.

Then again, maybe Penn needs to be driven a little further out into the wilderness for this to actually happen.


Cross-posted at The Huffington Post


-- Chris Weigant


3 Comments on “Mark Penn, Designated Scapegoat?”

  1. [1] 
    Michale wrote:

    Personally, I think it is too little too late...

    The only chance that Hillary has is if Obama is "Vince Foster'ed"...


  2. [2] 
    fstanley wrote:

    I agree that this seems to be a strategy to scapegoat Mr. Penn.

    However what interests me more are the diehard supporters of Sens Clinton & Obama. The campaigns and the DNC need to get the message out that Sen McCain is not an option. He is not (if he ever was) the mavrick independant he portrayed in 2000. His positions are no where near those Sens Clinton & Obama. It needs to be driven home that a vote for Sen McCain is a vote for the status quo and would be irresponsible, even reckless.

    I just don't understand how a supporter of Sens Clinton or Obama could even consider voting for Sen McCain.


  3. [3] 
    Thatcher wrote:

    Chris - I am normally with you on things, but I have to part ways with you on this one. Mark Penn resigned his title of "Chief Strategist". And that's about it. Yeah, he lost his veto power, but he's still on the daily conference calls making his opinions known. He's not a chief, but he's still one of the "elders" of the Clinton tribe.

    Mark Penn is just being palmed in the Clinton's hand instead of being played. (crossposted on HuffPo)

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