[REPUBLISHED FROM 2008CENTRAL.NET]
With the demise of Mark Penn as a daily figure in this campaign, I wanted to take a retrospective look back. Not just to the beginning of the campaign, but to the beginning of Bill Clinton's campaign in 1992. It makes the events of the past 3 or 4 days that much more astounding.
I. The Perot Campaign
Like all sweeping epics, this story begins in much the same place that it ends. In this case, it is with Penn making a lot of money and a Clinton presidential campaign have monetary problems. Of course, in this case, Penn did a month's worth of work for the Ross Perot campaign in 1992, while Bill Clinton was the candidate in debt. Penn was with Perot from the very beginning. In fact, he received almost half of the first disbursements of the Perot campaign. (Washington Post, 4/21/92). On the same day, in fact, it was revealed one Bill Clinton was 2 million dollars in debt after the Illinois and Michigan primaries, ironically. (LA Times, 4/21/92). What did Perot pay for? Perot's own words show little confidence in Penn: ""Friends of mine... just couldn't breathe without one, so I said get one. Spent 10 minutes looking at his results. Everybody says I paid him too much for it." (The Hotline, 5/5/92).
After that poll, though, Penn stopped working for the campaign, apparently as even Perot found Penn too expensive, combined with Frank Luntz growing closer to Perot. (Washington Post 5/5/92). That didn't stop Penn from doing what he is now incomparably famous for: spin that is completely unbelieveable to anyone who has taken a long term view to anything. In early June 1992, after he had stopped working for Perot, Penn said, "It certainly is too early, but the fact that the public has not solidified is a very positive factor for Perot, indicating the possibility that he can overcome the pattern of third-party trailoffs and sustain support to November."
This culminated in what now seems like an absurd remix of the present election. From the July 12, 1992 edition of This Week with David Brinkley:
SMITH: [voice-over] If Bentsen's right, that means a much nastier fall campaign, so it was perhaps no accident that, a week after the worst unemployment figures in eight years, Vice President Quayle was out testing what sounded very much like a personal attack on Governor Clinton.
J. DANFORTH QUAYLE, U.S. Vice President: One reason George Bush will win this election is that the American people know his character. He is honest, not slick.
SMITH: [voice-over] "Slick Willie"- remember him, the candidate who didn't inhale marijuana and who didn't sleep with Gennifer Flowers?
Gov. CLINTON: [February 1992] Your nation is losing its economic edge.
SMITH: [voice-over] Voters liked Clinton's message of change, but were put off by questions about his character.
MARK PENN, Pollster: Can you trust him? Is he really sincere and believable? I think that it's the women in America who have more doubt about him than anyone else and they're the ones that have to be convinced over the next week that he's a sincere candidate who's going to help them.
Moreover, the following quote from the July 26, 1992 Washington Post might describe why he ultimately resigned now. (And the harm of him now resigning earlier):
Despite a year of image rehab, Quayle still is a sure laugh on late-night television. "He's seen as a fool," said Mark Penn, a political consultant and pollster who worked with independent Ross Perot earlier in the year. "Is this race such that Bush can win with a [perceived] fool on the ticket? No. He needs a partner who is a lift among swing voters, instead of a partner who's really a drag on his efforts."II. The Distant Past - Anderson et. al.
Twenty years ago, Bill Clinton was governor of Arkansas. Hillary Clinton was working for a top Arkansas law firm. John McCain was serving in the Senate and trying to live down the Keating Five. Barack Obama was entering Harvard Law School. Where was Mark Penn? Taking questions live on C-Span before the New York Primary. (Syracuse Post-Standard 4/17/88). Ok, seriously, he was already a Democratic pollster, but it certainly underlines where he comes from.
Mark Penn has been attacked for being both a pollster and a strategist. A look at Penn's career through this regard shows something deeper. Penn's career can be said to more or less begin with John Anderson's campaign in 1980.
A National Journal article in 1980 looks very interesting in retrospect (National Journal, 10/18/80):
You wouldn't know it from watching them in action today, but until recently political pollsters lacked both celebrity and clout.
It was only a few years ago that pollsters in politics were likened to accountants: behind-the-scenes technicians needed to keep a campaign running but seldom in on strategic decisions. Or they were dismissed as social scientists who played with computers to prove self-evident theorems.
Pollsters were considered useful to buttress political instincts and personal contacts in the heat of a campaign. But it was the polls, not the pollsters, who ran the show.
In the 1980 presidential campaign, however, that's changed. The pollsters are directing -- some would say dominating -- the campaign and are intimately involved in campaign tactics and strategies.
In-house polling helped, for example, to dictate the style and content of Republican Ronald Reagan's statements in his Sept. 21 televised debate with independent John B. Anderson. On the Democratic side, polling data suggested that Reagan would be vulnerable to hardhitting attacks on his public positions by President Carter and Administration officials.
Which one set of pollsters did not have that type of authority?
In Anderson's independent presidential campaign, by contrast, pollsters Mark Penn and Douglas E. Schoen are not at the center of operations. That place is filled by media adviser and campaign director David Garth, an acknowledged master at using polls to shape candidates' media images. (See NJ, 9/3/80, p. 1523. )
"He asks for specific things," said Penn. "We work with Garth closely and he integrates the data into the campaign... A part of his success as a political consultant is his success at turning polls into strategies
There are a couple of unflattering ways to look at this. One could look at the rest of Penn's career in a vein similar to Captain Ahab. While both were ostensibly successful - captain of a ship, leader of Penn,Schoen and Berland and Burson-Marstellar, Penn was Ahab-like in his desire to both be a pollster and a "Chief Strategist."
Moreover, one could also argue that Bill and Hillary Clinton (and others) trusted Penn with political advice, even though even John Anderson was smart enough not to.
A brief 1987 Advertising Age profile meant to indicate how revolutionary Penn was now reads more along the lines of how dated he may be (Advertising Age, 11/2/87).:
Mark Penn and Doug Schoen ... had an innovative idea which "at the time we had trouble convincing people to try" -- polling by telephone. That method is now the norm. In addition to being one of the country's top Democratic political pollsters, Penn + Schoen also does an increasing amount of market research for corporations, corporate image work, survey research for government agencies, single-issue research for associations and public interest groups, legal research and international political polling and survey research.
"We've used the techniques of political polling in foreign presidential campaigns in places such as Venezuela and Israel," says Mr. Penn.
What once was innovative now sounds like bragging for designing the piano necktie.
III. Rise With the DLC
In order to understand the fall of Penn, one has to understand his rise as well.
Mark Penn's rise with the Clintons during the Clinton administration has been well-chronicled. This excerpt from the National Journal indicates in what circumstances Penn's firm was brought in, after the mid-term elections that were a disaster not only then President Clinton, but also were regarded as a referendum on Hillary Clinton in particular. (National Journal, 11/18/95):
Clinton was faced with two choices on the mega-issues--the size and the legitimate functions of the federal government--that the Republicans have brought to the fore. He could throw in with the Republicans in balancing the budget, as Dick Morris, his behind-the-scenes political strategist, has urged. Or he could follow the path favored by deputy chief of staff Harold M. Ickes, Clinton's top in-house political adviser, and other die-hard Democrats inside the White House--to hold the Republicans' feet to the fire for wanting to cut domestic programs while reducing taxes for the rich. In the latest go-round, Clinton chose to do both.
In a way, Morris and Ickes represent the warring sides of Clinton's political nature--the centrist and the traditional Democrat--and of the constituencies he needs to attract if he's to win a second term. A well-connected Democrat said he knows for a fact that the two men don't like each other. ''They're not
close,'' a White House aide acknowledged.
Insiders caution against exaggerating the ideological differences between them. Both are pragmatists who've known Clinton and his wife for ages and were schooled in the Democratic infighting of New York City politics. Ickes, a labor lawyer known as a liberal, has worked for Jesse Jackson but also ran the 1992 Democratic convention for Clinton, delighting the ''New Democrats'' on the party's right flank. Morris, renowned as a lone ranger among consultants, has labored for Republicans as conservative as Jesse A. Helms of North Carolina and for Democrats as liberal as ex-Sen. Howard M. Metzenbaum of Ohio.
But it was natural that Ickes and Morris would become antagonists in the White House, especially in light of the furtive manner by which Morris arrived. The President had secretly been in touch with the Connecticut-based consultant, who'd salvaged Clinton's political career in 1982, during his 1992 presidential campaign and again during the month before the 1994 elections. Morris, an insider said, predicted --presciently-- that the Democrats would lose 50 seats in the House and cede control of the Senate. When Clinton fell into a funk after the election, contemplating what the Republican takeover meant for his political future, he kept calling Morris. He would telephone him late at night, leaving others around the White House in the dark.
It isn't Morris who has Clinton on a string, as the common impression has it, a political adviser to the White House ventured. It's the reverse. After last year's disastrous elections, Clinton came to ''a sense of what to do'' but found no support for it among his White House advisers and decided that ''he needed someone (else) in the mix,'' the adviser said. ''The President is using Dick Morris to staff his side of the argument.''
That's said to have started relations between Morris and Ickes, ostensibly the head of Clinton's political operation, off on the wrong foot. They got worse as Morris's influence grew. When Morris invited Penn + Schoen Associates Inc. to handle polling for the White House, it was taken as an affront to Ickes, who battled the New York City-based pollsters in the past. (Ickes has long been close to David N. Dinkins, while Penn + Schoen--and Morris--worked for Edward I. Koch, whom Dinkins defeated in a bitter 1989 mayoral primary.) In Clinton's politically monumental decision last June to me-too the Republicans on the budget, Morris prevailed over the ardent objections of Ickes and others.
As Clinton's public standing has revived in recent months, Morris is said to have gained the upper hand. A Democratic insider described Morris's role as Clinton's top political strategist and Ickes's as the chief implementer, akin to a corporation's chief operating officer--an arrangement, he said, that Morris likes and Ickes doesn't. (Neither would be interviewed for this article.) He ranked Morris in the top stratum of presidential advisers, along with Vice President Albert Gore Jr. and chief of staff Leon E. Panetta. Morris's influence, he said, has grown beyond the shaping of Clinton's public persona to include substantive policy, such as welfare reform.
Mark Penn was part of the resurrection of the Clintons as a political force. Given how dead they were regarded - and how Hillary in particular went from health care maven to traditional first lady before Penn arrived and moved the Clintons to the center, and has been instramental in her rise from that to Senator to Presidential candidate.
Describing the 1996 and 1998 elections, Mark Penn himself described the strategy of unifying different sides of the party in a speech to the DLC (11/4/98):
I think that they were energized by seeing the Republican right threaten the Clinton administration and everything that the Clinton administration stands for. My point initially was that really whether you're in the base or a New Democrat, you really were completely unified behind this agenda of Social Security first, education, patient's bill of rights. There was no disconnect with one side of the party or another. On the other hand, the Republicans couldn't really decide whether they wanted to go after impeachment, whether they wanted tax cuts, whether they wanted to privatize Social Security, they never really had a message. And that's why my initial point was, they had the money, but we had the message, and it was a New Democratic message. It was also a very, very unifying message.
This is essentially the first contested primary for the Clintons since 1992, when the competition was not so bold. In 1992, candidates were so scared of losing to Bush that they decided not to run against Clinton, leaving Bill to fight against more or less just challenges from the right (Tsongas) and the Pu Pu Platter on the left (e.g., Jerry Brown, who had the same health care plan Kucinich now advocates).
It's this conservative influence, and neutering of Clinton's initial agenda in order to save his political career that many liberals find infuriating.
Given the choice between Penn's centrism and Bob Dole in 1996, liberals will constantly choose the centrism.
IV. Modern Implications
Mark Penn tries to represent himself as the manifestation of electability, more or less.
Contrast the current election with the meta-themes about NAFTA and the economy with this address from Penn to the DLC on 1/24/01:
...I think that it's important to see that this election worked on two levels. One level was the regular issue level -- Social Security, health care, education.
And on those specific issues, Al Gore actually did pretty well, as you'll see. He wins the voters concerned about most of the specific issues. But it also works on a broader level in which these larger meta-themes tend to clash.
And so the result of that clash is that Al Gore really lost that exchange, because Bush basically was able to paint him as a big- government liberal. And even when you win the specifics of the issues, even when you've got basically the right direction, if they think you're a big-government liberal, they're not going to vote for you.
And that was the main reason, I think, that we find that Bush managed to hold on the last month of the election and Gore really never found a clear meta-theme. Populism was probably his clearest. Progress and prosperity, as you'll see, would have been and was his biggest ticket to success, but he pulled back from that message repeatedly.
This old-style populist message tended to limit and drive up his base rather than expand out to the center of the country. And you'll see in the data that while the message does reasonably well overall, it doesn't do well among the swing voters, and it particularly doesn't do well among the swing male voters who broke in the last month of this election. And had Al Gore been able to pick up 3 or 4 percent of those, then I also think this election would have been put away, and it would have been put away in a big way.
You know, in 1992, there were 18 million manufacturing jobs. In 2000, there were 18 million manufacturing jobs. Even though there was a growth of 22 million jobs, the manufacturing sector stayed exactly the same size. So the truth of the matter is, if a political candidate today wanted to go down and see the workers, he would go to a suburban office complex and say, "Hey, here are the workers of America," because that's how America has changed and how the demographics of how people live and work have changed.
But Al Gore, despite his New Economy groundings, really never made any appeals to the 21st century wired workers, people basically living under new conditions and new times with new needs. I don't think either of the candidates, if you go through the debates, really made much of an appeal to the newest voter group, and they went to Bush almost by default.
Mark Penn was the wrong chief strategist for a campaign against Barack Obama. He prided himself on moving away from traditional liberal voters and expanding the base. In a primary election where the main competition is a someone who naturally appeals to these groups and is an expert in drawing in new votes, Clinton would have to rely on the same support he had spent his career working around.
The flip side to this is the idea that he could lead Clinton to appeal to these groups. That's probably the reason he had the influence he did. There's a problem with that, though: he's never really done it. He's appealed to many of this sort by moving the Clintons to the center. This has resulted in the famed "credibility" gap where Clinton has trust issues. It also has created the odd negative numbers of the Clintons: despite being regarded as centrists on the left, they are regarded as virtual communists on the right. Centrism is acceptable to liberals when the alternative is conservatism, but given the choice - and primaries are all about choice - liberals will choose one of their own. Now, electability weighs heavily in that consideration, but electability is almost never the sole consideration.
In that sense, I think the short term excuses and justifications for Penn are sort of besides the point.
Hillary Clinton ran what was widely regarded as a reelection campaign. Given the responsibility of Penn (or at least Penn-type politics) for the last 6 years of the Clinton presidency and the elections of Hillary Clinton to the Senate, it's hard not to see both his loss and getting fired for advocating a centrist political position as an ultimate repudiation of his politics.
Hard, but not impossible.
Why? Because the statement itself indicates that Penn and his firm will continue to give advice and polls to the campaign. As long as there is a potential general eleciton to be won against Republicans, Penn's connection will still have some worth.
What's been laid bare is that he seems to have little ability to against Democrats. Penn advocated for Ed Koch in the 1988 primary, where Koch lost to David Dinkins. Perhaps someone could one day make thorough comparisons of those races; on face they seem to have a lot of things in common.
David Axelrod likes to use narratives to sell candidates. Mark Penn likes to use microtrends to describe elections. In the end, though, it might be the macrotrend that did him in. Had Clinton retained a bigger share of self described liberals, she would be the probable nominee today. In fact, the one issue where Clinton does have trust on issues is health care - where she earned that trust before Penn came along.
Even some of his greatest boasts are vapid when looked at with a critical eye: His slogan for Tony Blair famously was stolen from an episode of the Simpsons.
Farewell Mark Penn, if you are gone. I'm not quite sure who exactly will miss you.
A whole post, and I didn't even mention his construction, either.
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