Will Penn Stay Quiet?

Suffering in silence is his new job for Clinton.

Mark Penn. Click image to expand.
Mark Penn

When I asked a Clinton ally what I would notice most now that Mark Penn has been demoted, the reply e-mail came back quickly with a quip: “No more stories about Penn.”

I wonder. It’s true that the press won’t be able to pass along as much regular Penn griping from Clinton aides and associates. (The headline for his fall should be: Penn Downed by Sniper Fire.) But another great source for future Penn stories still walks the earth: Mark Penn.

He has good reason to speak up. He’s taking a pounding. Now that Penn has been shoved to the side, he’s being blamed for everything: losing the Iowa caucus, conceding other caucuses to Obama, his candidate’s failure to show her more human side, cost over-runs, the campaign’s pugnacious tone, and failing to see that voters wanted change this year in candidates instead of experience. Soon enough, it’ll come out that he used the last of the nondairy creamer in the kitchen. A lot of this has been aired before, but many of his critics are using his plunge to take a few last whacks at the piñata.

Even Clinton supporters who don’t delight in making Penn the scapegoat can find it useful to blame him. He serves as a clean break. Now that he’s gone, better things can start happening for Hillary.

Penn is, in fact, to blame for a lot. Time’s Mark Halperin has printed a helpful list for anyone plotting recriminations. Whether Penn is solely to blame for all he’s being held accountable for is the topic for post-election seminars after tempers have cooled. For the moment, if he cares about Clinton’s campaign, he’s got to take the abuse. Any attempt to set the record straight would initiate a new flurry of press coverage that would damage Clinton. Penn was at the center of the campaign, so any soft-pedaling or denial of his failures points directly to Clinton’s. Either he doomed a good candidate, or Clinton is fatally flawed.

A prolonged debate over Penn also serves up this question: Why did the Clintons hold on to him so long? Such a discussion would reinforce existing concerns about the insular Clinton family flanked by loyal guards. She’s been selling her toughness, but that quality may make her impervious to criticism about those she depends on to weather the storms. This is not a good trait to get hit with if you’re trying to replace George Bush. None of these conversations are helpful when they’re in earshot of superdelegates who hold the key to Clinton’s slim chances.

To stay quiet, Penn will have to show nearly inhuman self-restraint, a quality so many of his critics say he lacked. He re-energized his enemies in February when he appeared to distance himself from the campaign as it went south. In an e-mail to the Los Angeles Times, Penn described himself as “an outside message advisor with no campaign staff reporting to me. … I have had no say or involvement in four key areas—the financial budget and resource allocation, political or organizational sides. Those were the responsibility of Patti Solis Doyle, Harold Ickes and Mike Henry, and they met separately on all matters relating to those areas.”

Though Penn might have been inching away, the Clintons have always shown him a lot of the loyalty so prized in Clinton land—the expectations that were the source of the harsh backlash against Bill Richardson. Bill Clinton even publicly defended Penn after Hillary’s losses in Iowa. Perhaps that loyalty is part of the reason why Penn wasn’t fired entirely (he continues to advise the Clintons, and his firm still does polling for the campaign). Whether Penn can stay quiet rather than defend his reputation for the next several months is a test of whether he can show that loyalty right back. He has plenty of incentive, though, to try to correct the record before it becomes rock-hard conventional wisdom. “What happened to Clinton the inevitable front-runner?” people will ask. Mark Penn does not want “Mark Penn” to be the answer.