Published on TheHill.com on June 10, 2008.
In a New York Times op-ed piece on June 8, Hillary Clinton’s former strategist Mark Penn blamed his candidate’s humiliating defeat on the failure of the campaign’s fundraising and budgeting operations. It’s hard to understand how a campaign that raised $200 million could seriously be described as falling short financially. Penn is definitely looking in the wrong direction. He should look in the mirror instead.
There was only one major reason that Hillary lost: Her message of experience and inevitability, devised by Penn, was fatally flawed. To make things worse, on Penn’s advice, she stayed with the foolish strategy long after she and everyone around her should have realized its inherent weakness.
In our 2004 book, Rewriting History, my wife Eileen McGann and I discussed Hillary’s proclivity for placing unwavering faith in her guru du jour. During her healthcare debacle, she followed Ira Magaziner’s unworkable doctrinaire approach for far too long; on the Armed Services Committee, she admiringly adhered to the opinions of charismatic but hawkish generals in backing the war in Iraq. And in her own campaign, she clung to Mark Penn’s disastrous strategy, dooming her historic presidential campaign. By the time that she finally kicked him downstairs, it was too late.
The reasons that led to the basic decision of the Penn-led strategy team to stress Hillary’s experience and readiness to “hit the ground running on day one” were:
(a) It bolstered Hillary’s rÃ©sumÃ© and inoculated her against charges that she was just running on Bill’s record;
(b) it reassured people about her qualifications for the general election and assuaged anxieties about a female president;
(c) but, most of all, it laid down the predicate for an attack, down the road, on Obama’s own lack of experience.
Penn appears to have loved Obama’s inexperience negative so much that he decided to base Hillary’s entire campaign on setting it up. But while Penn’s strategy might have been effective in a general election, where voters value experience, it made no sense in a Democratic primary, where voters want change. That, after all, is why they are Democrats in the first place. But Penn himself had little experience in Democratic primaries and little tolerance for listening to others who did.
Because of Penn’s blunder, Hillary essentially surrendered the mantra of change to Obama, giving him the high ground in a Democratic primary. And, by stressing experience, Penn laid his candidate open to the devastating recitation of the dynastic alternation of Bush-Clinton-Bush-Clinton. When he failed to advise his candidate to forgo lobbyist campaign contributions, to say nothing of staffing her campaign with corporate lobbyists (like Penn), he further permitted Obama to stake out his anti-Washington candidacy.
More than anything Obama did himself, Penn was instrumental in letting Hillary’s opponent co-opt the ground of change and opposition to Washington politics-as-usual, an incurable misstep in a Democratic primary.
But Penn also missed the serious danger of stressing Hillary’s experience: She didn’t have that much. So much of her claimed record was appropriated from Bill that she quickly invited skepticism for claiming Bill’s achievements as her own. And her new assertions contradicted her and Bill’s carefully documented memoirs. From her embellished role in the Irish peace process, to the passage of the Children’s Health Insurance Program, to welfare reform, to the balanced budget and, finally, to her visit to Bosnia amid “sniper”fire, Hillary’s “experience” invited derision and disbelief. The release of her White House schedules further undermined her exaggerated claims when they proved that she spent most of her time as first lady at schools and teas and not in any decision-making role.
By the time the die had essentially been cast in Iowa, Penn tried to help Hillary pivot her insider Washington image to “experience at creating change,” but the dichotomy had already been set in stone – Obama for change; Hillary for experience. It was too late.
Penn’s next colossal mistake was failing to understand the party rules and their implications for delegate selection and fundraising. In the past, nominations in both parties have historically been determined by a knockout primary after which the winner could claim the nomination, forcing the opponent to pull out. In 1988, Dukakis beat Gore in Illinois. In 1992, Clinton beat Tsongas on Super Tuesday, largely in the South. A winner-take-all knockout strategy was still possible in the Republican primary, but the 2008 Democratic contests were almost all based on proportional representation, often by congressional district, where even a large win did little to pile up a significant margin in delegates.
Not understanding the rules, Penn encouraged – or at least allowed – the delusion to grip the Hillary campaign that Super Tuesday would end it all. Several observers even quoted him as saying that Hillary would win 390 delegates by winning California. (In fact, she emerged with a margin of only 40 delegates from the Golden State.) He needed to make his candidate understand that once she lost Iowa, she was in for a 50-state battle that would stretch out all the way to June with no quick win on either side. This blindness to the rules of the game cost Hillary the nomination
In the past, knockouts took place because the loser could no longer raise money. But Obama realized that the only way for him to survive the inevitable early defeats was to base his fundraising on the Internet, as Howard Dean – guided by pioneer Joe Trippi – had done. He knew that Internet money didn’t dry up. Defeat had no impact.
These small donors were true believers who believed it was OK to lose, just not to compromise. With the click of a mouse, they would send in another $50.
But the Clinton campaign continued to focus on big donor funding. The campaign used the Internet too little and too late. Indeed, Hillary spent most of the money she had raised for her Senate reelection campaign of 2006 building a direct-mail list!
So after the knockout didn’t happen on Super Tuesday, Obama chugged on merrily, racking up victory after victory in the February primaries and caucuses, while Hillary’s camp was suddenly caught flat-footed without sufficient funding for the caucuses. It wasn’t an inability to raise money that doomed Hillary -it was a failure to allocate the money over the entire primary season. When Obama picked himself up after losing California and went on to battle in Louisiana, Washington state, Wisconsin, Virginia, Mississippi and Maryland, Hillary’s camp must have been appalled. But Penn, as the strategist, should have seen the impossibility of a California knockout and prepared the campaign for the long Russian winter ahead of them.
Bill Clinton came close to the mark when he called the advice Hillary had been given “malpractice.” It wasn’t Bill’s out-of-school comments or Hillary’s style or sexism that lost this race. It was Penn’s bad advice.