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Why The Clintons Held Onto Mark Penn

This column was written by Michelle Cottle .

By the end, it was hard to count all the reasons the members of Team Hillary wanted to see Mark Penn laid low. The rumpled, portly pollster's apparently unpardonable sin was his March 31 meeting with the Colombian ambassador to discuss the efforts of Penn's PR firm, Burson-Marsteller, to procure a trade pact specifically opposed by Senator Hillary Clinton. But Penn had been a focus of animus within the Hillary campaign from day one. Famous for his inability to play well with others, Penn is near universally regarded as rough, arrogant, antisocial, controlling, manipulative, brutally ambitious, and occasionally downright abusive - a hurler of cell phones, pagers, and Chinese food.

Even before his ill-fated sit-down with the Colombians, Penn's work at Burson (which services such controversial clientele as defense contractors, drug companies, Big Oil, and Big Tobacco) frequently served as a lightning rod for bad press and attacks from the Democratic base. And as Hillary's primary fortunes faltered, Penn's storied message savvy also came under fire, with the baying for his head growing ever louder inside the campaign and from outside donors. For months, the joke around Washington was that, in all of the Clinton campaign, Penn had exactly two allies: Bill and Hillary. Now, as his public spanking is greeted with hardcore, widespread schadenfreude, the only question being asked about his fall from the Clintons' grace seems to be, "What took them so long?" The explanations offered by a variety of Hillarylanders, erstwhile Penn colleagues, and party veterans speak as much to the predilections and peculiarities of Bill and Hillary as to any particular talents Penn himself possesses.

Ask any member of Team Hillary what has bound Penn to the Clintons, and you'll receive a mini-history lesson on the myriad trials he has seen them through, starting with Bill's 1996 reelection. In the wake of the disastrous 1994 midterms, Penn and then-partner Doug Schoen were quietly brought into the White House by Dick Morris to help with some course correction in advance of the race. As one former Clintonite and Penn defender explains it, the president, having been pulled too far toward the big-government, lefty populism of some early advisers, was searching for a way back to the center, and the right-leaning Penn helped Clinton telegraph centrist values to the public and sell voters on policy ideas both large (welfare reform, balanced budgets) and small (school uniforms). When Morris was forced from the campaign over revelations he had been spending his nights at Washington's Jefferson Hotel sucking the toes of a call girl--news of which broke inopportunely at the Dems' nominating convention - Penn slid into the role of Invaluable Advisor. At campaign's end, he received the lion's share of credit for making Clinton the first Democratic president to win a second term since FDR.

Then came Monica. Clinton needed his pollster to float possible damage-control strategies without everyone else around the White House knowing (and leaking) what was going on; for Penn to do this, the president had to entrust him with some of the juicier details of his predicament in order to prepare for the worst. "So you're starting from a point of confidentiality that nobody else has," notes a Penn colleague from that time. As impeachment loomed, Penn counseled Clinton to stay focused on reassuring Americans that he was still hard at work for them, partisan distractions be damned. When at last Clinton emerged from the firestorm singed but alive, Penn once more enjoyed the credit. By then, he had proved himself not only strategically savvy, but also loyal and discreet - two attributes absolutely necessary for access into Hillary's inner-circle in particular.

And so the relationship grew. When Hillary decided to run for Senate, Bill urged her to go with Penn. When the Clintons suffered a string of PR disasters in Bill's first few months out of office - the Marc Rich pardon, the furnishings allegedly removed from the White House, the cash-for-pardons scheme by Hillary's brother Hugh - Penn served as a source of stability as he spearheaded the effort to repair their images. By this time, says one long-time Clinton insider, "he was like a crutch."

Penn's defenders say it's no mystery why the Clintons have stuck with him through the years: He's loyal, he's brilliant, and, most importantly, they've never lost with him. He also compliments many of their political and strategic biases. Hillary's recent populism notwithstanding, people note that Penn's centrist politics jibe with the Clintons' positioning of themselves as New (and improved) Democrats. "They are moderates," says a pro-Penn ex-Clintonite. "They believe in trying to accomplish things through active, centrist means." Moreover, say defenders, since Penn isn't tied to the party's traditional interest groups (most notably labor unions), he offers a fresher, less-dogmatic perspective than other party pollsters. (Certainly, Penn, Schoen & Berland, part of the Burson family since 2001, isn't a dogmatically Democratic firm; between 2004 and 2006, it received hundreds of thousands in consulting fees from the New York State Senate Republican Campaign Committee.) Penn also shares Hillary's conviction that campaigns should focus on policy rather than personality, and, in keeping with her penchant for detailed policy talk, Penn believes races are won more by targeting small demographic movements ("microtrends," as he has dubbed them) than by tapping some sweeping cultural zeitgeist. Like both Clintons, he is a fierce political fighter for whom the concept of surrender is anathema.

In fact, many of the criticisms commonly lobbed at Penn - he's too conservative, too corporate, too cautious, too arrogant, too opinionated, too confrontational - are among the very qualities prized by the Clintons (and other politicos). For instance, Penn's pro-corporate sympathies are a sore spot for many Hillarylanders, and his resistance to bowing out of his duties at Burson caused grumbling inside the campaign and out. (Even as Penn publicly claimed to have recused himself from all Burson work save for Microsoft, he would, say colleagues, not infrequently be phoning in to campaign strategy calls from some distant locale where he was tending to his firm's business.) But Penn's phenomenal corporate success also contributes to his "aura" of being a winner, say party operatives. "Making a lot of money and having the ear of a lot of powerful people creates sort of a mutual circle of self-validation," explains one colleague from a past campaign. "The fact that Bill Gates listens to him, Wow, that means he must be smart."

And while some of Burson's clients have prompted questions about Penn's (and by extension Hillary's) values, insiders say the Clintons saw Penn's breadth of experience as potentially valuable in the general election, both in terms of overall perspective and specific knowledge. If Penn's looking at a poll for Microsoft and gets an impression of how the public thinks about something, explains an unaffiliated party operative, he can apply that knowledge elsewhere: "The boundaries between clients aren't hard and fast."

Others in the party object to, if not Penn's disdain for liberals, then his chronic inability to hide that disdain. "One of his favorite things is the 'double-push off,'" chuckles the colleague from a past race. "On the one hand, he's attacking Bush and pushing off of him. On the other hand, he's attacking and pushing off the excesses of the left." And while this tendency risks alienating many within the party's base, Penn's rough handling of liberals rarely upset the Clintons too severely, considering Bill's historical success with triangulation.

Perversely, even Penn's lack of interpersonal skills has an upside. "There's something about that nebbish pollster thing that works for him," says the party operative, echoing the widely expressed opinion that numbers geniuses are expected to be quirky and off-putting. After all, who has time for social niceties when one is constantly processing data and mapping out strategies in one's head? Penn's storied arrogance, meanwhile, helps fuel his air of authority. "There is no equivocating in what he says. No trying to bring people to consensus," notes the operative. "Frequently wrong, but never in doubt," says another close observer. This supreme confidence, everyone agrees, is among Penn's biggest assets. Politics is an unnerving business, and candidates at all levels find it reassuring when an adviser points with absolute conviction toward the path to victory; it is, say veteran operatives, a core requirement for guru-dom.

Indeed, those who question Penn's judgment tend to be told in no uncertain terms what idiots they are - often at high volume and in front of their colleagues. (Generous observers suggest that Penn lacks "the sensitivity gene," while more critical ones describe him using a range of unprintable epithets.) But those close to the Clintons point out that both Bill and Hillary like people - even widely disliked people - with very strong opinions. (Dick Morris proudly proffers himself as Exhibit A.) And a key element of both Clintons' leadership style is to throw advisers with differing viewpoints into a room together on the assumption that the best argument and idea will carry the day. Penn's ability to provoke debate, say Hillarylanders, is specifically prized by the candidate. And so when Penn did something obnoxious, like threaten to quit if he didn't get his way, the Clintons' attitude toward him was basically, Sure, the guy's a little rough, but that's the price you pay for genius. As an ex-employee of Penn Schoen put it, "It's just like being an actress. You can be a total b****, but if you're a great actress, all is forgiven."

Not quite all, it seems. And so, ironically felled by his own PR blunder, Penn finds himself exiting center stage to a chorus of catcalls. This is not to suggest that he won't still hold sway with the Clinton. (The smart money says he will.) But whatever influence he wields will be from a less exalted and decidedly less public perch. Perhaps out of the spotlight and proscribed from mucking around in the rest of the campaign team's business, Penn will be able to once again work some magic for his most valuable and enduring benefactors. If not, much of Hillary's failure will likely be laid at his feet. And the Clintons' most provocative adviser may soon find himself coping with the fallout from his failure to heed that hoariest of clichés: Take care how you treat others on the way up, because they are the same people you'll encounter on your way back down.
By Michelle Cottle
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