Thursday, March 06, 2008

Everybody hates Mark

While I tend to be wary of establishment media stories about infighting among Democrats, today’s Washington Post article about dissention and vicious fights among Hillary ’08 staffers gives plenty of examples and names lots of names.

And one name that comes up often and almost never in a good way is that of pollster “Chief Strategist” Mark Penn.

Shorter WaPo: Clinton won on Tuesday in spite of Penn, not because of him.

Penn, of course, begs to differ. Loudly.

Penn, who wrote a book called Microtrends, is the ultimate hedgehog (or, maybe he is a foxy hedgehog, since he knows one big thing about many little things)—and this campaign is going to prove him a genius. . . or go down to ignominious defeat trying. Penn wants Clinton to run basically a niche marketing strategy against her opponent’s “movement”—appeal to a handful of core constituencies, and then pick off enough of the low-hanging fruit in broader segments to craft a victory.

It is the kind of 50+1 strategy that has cost Democrats bitterly in past elections in many parts of the country. It is the kind of 50+1 strategy that Bush’s “Chief Strategist” Karl Rove used to bitterly divide the country.

The WaPo article also gives us a couple of other examples of what makes Mark Penn a bad fit for a post-Bush, post-Republican ascendance campaign. He takes credit for the success of his boss, and does so publicly and ungraciously (which reminds one of former Bush speechwriter David "axis of" Frum). He uses his own shop to test his own messages and hypotheses, and then doesn’t share his supporting data, and won’t poll for or share the data that opposing camps inside the campaign want (reminiscent of Republican pollster Frank Luntz, who has been reprimanded by opinion research associations for mischaracterizing data). Penn also had the temerity to have his consulting firm, Burson-Marsteller, bill the Clinton campaign $10 million for the work.

The sort of “circular firing squad” atmosphere that Penn—and others in the campaign—have fostered represents part of the Democratic narrative so many of us without the fancy titles have fought for so long to change. It played a roll in the party’s failures of the last generation—and I believe that it has played a roll in turning the once “inevitable” Democratic nominee into a scrapping challenger constantly facing do-or-die primaries.

Maybe Hillary Clinton doesn’t see this—in which case, it does not speak well of her much-vaunted judgment—or maybe the New York Senator does, but sticks with Penn and his band of fractious brothers out of some sort of loyalty (Penn has been with the Clintons since 1996). If the latter is true—sticking out of loyalty with people who are failing at their jobs—well, that puts me in mind of another Republican: President Bush, himself.

And, because we are still in silly season, I feel I must add this: I am not saying that Hillary Clinton is George Bush—or is even anything close—but I don’t think that the party or the country can afford to make the same stylistic mistakes, no matter the ideology or policy goals.

(cross-posted on Daily Kos and The Seminal)

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