Get What You (Over)pay For, Part 2

February 13, 2008 10:50 a.m.

One of the most exciting things about this Democratic race is that it’s between two genuine titans, each of whom has brought off clutch victories that propelled them back into contention. And they are each in their own ways masters of the game. Whatever the eventual outcome, when I look at the younger generation of people who make up most of the TPM staff, I wonder how much relative newcomers to the political process have a view for how rare it is to have two such evenly matched contenders go head to head so deep into the primary calendar. And yet, looking at these two worthies, for those of us who need our fill of snark and derision we have the risible Mark Penn, Hillary Clinton’s chief strategist, who’s probably at least responsible as anybody in the country for her current predicament — whether that’s the glass jaw ‘inevitability’ strategy he ginned up for her or the brilliant decision not to invest any resources in a slew of states across the country the campaign would need to compete in if Obama scored early victories.

As I noted on Monday, on the eve of what turned out to be a series of crushing defeats for his candidate in Maryland, DC and Virginia, Penn decided to cut out for an evening to discuss and sign copies of his micro-book Microtrends at the Strand Bookstore on the edge of Greenwich Village here in downtown Manhattan.

Here we join the festivities in progress, as reported by the New York Observer

“I was determined to take an hour out and talk about the book,” Mr. Penn told the audience, some of whom ate yogurt as they listened by the stacks of art and auction catalogs on the bookstore’s second floor. “It’s not a political book.”

With that, Mr. Penn, who speaks softly and always looks a little nervous, began his presentation.

“The theory of the book is that the era of big trends is over,” he said.

He talked about how society had become “infinitely personalized” because of an increasingly evident “individualistic streak” that manifested itself in, among other things, the way “people don’t want to wear the same clothes.”

As Tina Brown, the former New Yorker editor who is working on a Hillary Clinton book, took notes to his left, Mr. Penn emphasized his distaste for the microtrend he calls “impressionable elites”—supposed leaders of society who, as he sees it, show more interest in a candidate’s personality than policies.

Mr. Obama enjoys the support of this chattering class, Mr. Penn believes, while Mrs. Clinton speaks more to working-class people who really care about policy because policy really impacts their lives. Worse still, Mr. Penn sees the “impressionable elites” growing in number, so much so that he has considered turning “that trend into an entire book someday, because it is becoming more and more evident.”

At least one attendee was skeptical. “Obama strikes me as a macrotrend, not a microtrend,” said Kevin Costa, a 48-year-old government analyst and undecided Democrat, during the question-and-answer session.

“It’s not just in the political context,” Mr. Penn said, explaining that more and more people were being persuaded by media stories and making important decisions in their life based on “hearsay.”

Asked after the event what, if anything, had gone wrong with the Clinton campaign, Mr. Penn suggested that Mr. Obama had simply turned out to be a tougher candidate than originally expected.

“After he won Iowa, he was a different candidate with a larger constituency,” said Mr. Penn. “I think that very much changed the course of the race, but I think you have seen us come back time and time again in situations where the polls and the media were ready to call it, and the voters said otherwise.”

I must say that the image of Mark Penn — master of the suburban, poll-doctored demographic cliche — falling back on ‘working class people’ against the ‘impressionable elites’ is enough to make all the late nights here reporting poll results at TPM HQ all worthwhile.

Viva Penn!

Late Update: TPM Reader JM was there at the Penn event and gives a dissenting (to the Observer’s read) take on Penn’s presentation.

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