Chief Goof


TPM Reader JM laments how Penn destroyed Hillary’s campaign …

There’s no good reason why Hillary Clinton shouldn’t be cruising to the nomination right now. She very easily could have been the candidate of fresh ideas, the tireless worker who would finally deliver on the promise of Bill’s administration. For most of 2007 I expected her to roll out a killer argument that would finally convince me that she was a better pick than Obama.

She never did, and increasingly I think Penn is the main reason. His faults suffused and defined her campaign – think small and narrow, don’t change anything that worked for Bill, don’t roll your proposals into a larger vision, don’t suggest that you bring anything to the table but stolidity and experience – and, for targeted voters only, emphasize your gender. Penn took one of the most popular Democrats of the last 40 years and made her into a one-note bore.

Much of that is Hillary’s fault – there’s a reason Penn’s approach appealed to her, after all. But I’m a bit wistful about what could have been if Hillary had shown even a touch of daring and dumped the architect before he set down this crappy foundation.

There’s a lot of truth in this, except for Hillary’s and I think Bill’s unique responsibility for putting Penn in charge of the campaign (strategy, message, polling, whatever term you want to use). In one sense, a candidate should always be judged by their campaign, even in cases where a good deal is delegated. It’s a good way of judging their ability to evaluate people, hold people accountable, etc. And in the final analysis the buck stops with them. It’s their campaign.

In the Penn-Clinton case, though, from every account I’ve ever heard, you had a connection that was much deeper than that consultants and pollsters usually have with the campaign and so deep it was able to survive years of evidence that Penn was an overrated incompetent excelling mainly in being a showboating buffoon. From what I can tell, this was actually pretty widely understood within the Clinton campaign, perhaps especially within the Clinton campaign. But for Bill and Hillary, in some ways perhaps more for her, Penn was the one whose too clever by 5/4 polling nuggets saved them from political oblivion in 1995 and 1996. So he was like a political life jacket, a talisman of some sort.

So, all true, but the Penn problem went right to the top.

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