Monday, April 07, 2008

The companies they keep

Normally I hate kicking a guy when he’s down, but when it comes to Mark Penn, really, you just can’t kick hard enough. Penn, presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s chief “strategist” (don’t you dare call him “pollster,” even though that’s about the nicest thing you can call him) throughout her long march from “inevitable” winner to inevitable loser, was forced to step down from his self-named post this weekend after it was revealed that he was taking money from the Colombian Government to help promote Central American free trade while gouging a Clinton campaign that now opposes such trade agreements.

It should not come as a surprise that Penn had a conflict of interest; Burson-Marsteller, the firm Penn heads, is a 24/7 conflict of interest machine. (Union busting and lobbying on behalf of subprime lenders and jackbooted Blackwater thugs are just a few of the highlights lowlights that should have made Penn persona non grata for any Democrat worthy of the name.) It should, however, come as a surprise that a) Penn was hired in the first place, b) Penn lasted as long as he did with the Clinton campaign, and c) that Penn will continue to siphon off vital Clinton campaign dollars in exchange for his particular (and particularly bad) brand of polling “data.”

Mark Penn “befriended” (not quite sure that is the right word) HRC as a protégé of the egregious Dick Morris during Bill Clinton’s sub 50% run at term number two, and since then has put together an historic run of election losses (DHinMI has a nice rundown of the string). Even in the world of consumer research, Penn’s signature “idea”—microtrends—is painfully old news. (I write from experience, but if you have doubts, just ask yourself: If Penn could still make big bucks hawking microtrends to private clients as his proprietary theory, would he now be selling his brainchild to anybody with $25.99?) This hiring of Penn because of his prior relationship with the Clintons or because he was a known quantity, in spite of what was known about that quantity, was a serious error in judgment by the Clinton team.

If Senator Clinton did not understand the flaws inherent in Penn’s strategic “thinking” prior to election season, the sad descent of Hillary ’08 despite a $100 million war chest and strong contacts with the party elite should have quickly signaled to HRC that she had not been getting the best advice. In fact, the situation that emerged, where Clinton was not able to see that Penn’s advice was so flawed, should also probably have served as a red flag for the Senator.

There is a reason why there are so many layers of consultants, pollsters, and opinion researchers in the consumer world. The guy/team/firm that develops a particular strategy/message/ad campaign has a vested interest in its success; entrusting that same guy/team/firm with the measuring of that success is a conflict of interest that would strain even the most rigorous researchers. It indeed was a very similar conflict of interest that lead to the breakup/downfall of consulting/accounting giant Arthur Andersen. After that scandal, Enron, and eight years of a President that believes his own PR, Hillary Clinton should have been especially sensitive to such conflicts.

And if not sensitive to such relatively intellectual conflicts, then HRC should have at least been more aware of the personal conflicts that Penn brought to practically every encounter within the Clinton campaign, and throughout the Democratic Party. As documented earlier, everybody hates Mark Penn.

Most amazing, at this point, however, is the revelation that Penn will continue to draw funds from the Clinton campaign for more of his so-called polling. Mark Penn, a man of considerable personal wealth with a sizeable salary from Burson, has taken millions of dollars from a campaign that has run into serious money problems the last few months. Penn never volunteered his help to the campaign, never offered to give back his salary, never offered to donate his firm’s services, and never stepped down or took a sabbatical from his post as head of Burson-Marsteller. He never recused himself from jobs with clients or interests that might have been contrary to the goals of the Clinton Campaign. Penn made it clear in actions (if nothing else) that he puts personal gain over the success of his candidate or the interests of his country.

By horrific contrast, it has been reported that back in 1999/2000, candidate George W. Bush asked consultant Karl Rove to give up all of his other clients before he could join the Bush campaign. Why was it that Hillary Clinton never asked the same of Penn?

That Mark Penn, or Penn’s polling firm, Penn, Schoen, and Berland, will continue as a source of data for Clinton, and will continue to consume vital Clinton campaign resources, is a remarkable turn on Sunday’s turn of events. In a campaign where the Republican, John W. McCain, is highly vulnerable because of his deep connections to corporate consultants and lobbyists—while he hypocritically holds himself up as the candidate without ties to such people—why would Clinton so visibly cede the moral and empirical high ground by continuing any relationship with the publicly shamed Penn? Hillary Clinton’s inability to swiftly and decisively cut all ties to Mark Penn is a signal example of a flaw in her ability to lead on “day one.”

That the likes of Penn and other similarly conflicted consultants permeate so may of our nation’s high-profile campaigns is an example of a larger problem. The national-level, multi-media, high-priced campaigns of our presidential candidates do require the expertise of a variety of consultants, strategists, researchers, and pollsters, but the use of such experts with ongoing ties to corporate or foreign governmental interests clearly has an undue and deleterious effect on presidential policy (and much the same can be said for other elected posts). Is there a solution?

Let me propose a first step. For obvious reasons, consultants and their firms closely guard their exact arrangements with private clients. It would be extremely difficult for any one reporter, blogger, or concerned citizen to chart all of the corporate ties of all the consultants who work for each campaign—but a good deal of information is out there. Campaigns list staff and have to report expenditures. Consulting firms post client lists, and in the case of publicly held firms, they have to report on the sources of their income. For instance, David Plouffe and David Axelrod, campaign manager and strategist, respectively, for Barack Obama, are both partners at AKP&D Message and Media, a firm that has done work for the AFL-CIO and AFSCME. Rick Davis, McCain’s campaign manager, has worked extensively for the telecommunications industry, as well as the Prime Minister of Ukraine. I do not intend to imply that there is any equivalency between labor unions, telecoms, or private security firms—quite the contrary—these and any of the other clients I have mentioned are simply examples of what we know about some key campaign consultants.

But I am sure that we could know more—and we should know more. Come the general election, I think it would be only right, and likely advantageous, to compare the clients and connections of McCain’s advisors with the interests of either Obama’s or Clinton’s senior staffers. . . and the time to amass this database is now. I am not an internet genius, but I would like to call on some of you that are to help me crowd-source this project and develop a go-to source for this kind of information.

If we can put this information out there, then we can all decide whom we want within earshot of our next president. . . rather than relying on the questionable judgment of any particular presidential candidate.

(cross-posted on The Seminal and Daily Kos)

Labels: , , , , , , , , ,


Post a Comment

<< Home