Off Mark

There could have been worse moments for revelations to emerge that Mark Penn met with one client, the Colombian embassy, to discuss a free-trade agreement opposed by another client, Hillary Clinton. It could have happened on a slow news day, as opposed to the 40 th anniversary of MLK’s assassination. Or a day when Clinton wasn’t releasing seven years of tax returns .

But because it didn’t get much attention today, it remains to be seen how much impact this unwisest of unwise decisions—for Penn has made others —will have on the campaign. Obama spokesman Bill Burton reminded reporters of Clinton’s response to Austan Goolsbee’s meeting with Canadian officials: “I would ask you to look at this story and substitute my name for Sen. Obama’s name and see what you would do with this story. … Just ask yourself [what you would do] if some of my advisers had been having private meetings with foreign governments.”

Keep in mind that the situations are barely analogous. Goolsbee met with Canadian officials on behalf of the Obama campaign and allegedly said things that made Obama sound hypocritical. Penn, on the other hand, was representing his PR firm, Burston-Marsteller (although, oddly, a spokesman for Colombia’s president wasn’t sure ). And while the meeting certainly makes Mark Penn sound hypocritical, it’s hard to extend the blame to Clinton herself.

Still, Penn is no doubt on the receiving end of a very large paddle right now. It’s not good enough for Penn to say, ” I may be a hypocrite, but my client is not.” For someone who sells a candidacy based largely on judgment, Penn displayed very little of it. As Josh Marshall put it , “[W]hen [Clinton’s] political future is on the line in a state like Pennsylvania, wracked by the loss of industrial jobs for decades, you think he could have waited a few more weeks before prancing off to help get a new free trade pact passed?” This campaign has seen unprecedented conflation of surrogate and candidate (Power, Ferraro, Shaheen)—it’s optimistic to think this crap won’t trickle up.

Penn has since apologized , but damned if Obama’s allies aren’t going to milk this like a Lancaster udder.