It might be tempting to cast
as the result of a dramatic internal struggle—the triumph of emotional, character-based messaging over Penn’s numbers-based “strength and experience” mantra. But that’s not what happened. He just screwed up one too many times.
Penn handed in his resignation as chief strategist early Sunday, after a Friday Wall Street Journal article reported that Penn had met with the Colombian government to discuss a trade deal that Clinton herself opposed. (He was representing his PR firm, Burson-Marsteller Worldwide.) When news of the meeting first broke on Friday, Penn said he had made an “error in judgment.” The Clintons were reportedly furious. Even the Colombian government turned on Penn: His statement showed a “lack of respect” for the people of Colombia, they said before terminating his contract.
The list of Penn screw-ups is long but easily summarized: Many in the Clinton campaign blame him for Hillary’s loss in Iowa; her decision not to compete in other caucus states, allowing Obama run up a string of victories in them; and her failure to match Obama’s overarching message of inspiration with one of her own. (One of the few times Clinton didn’t stick with Penn’s script—the famous Diner Sob—is widely credited for her stunning New Hampshire comeback.) Then there’s the time he told the L.A. Times that none of the problems in the Clinton camp were his fault, the time he repeated the word cocaine on Hardball while discussing Obama’s youthful drug use, and the time he told reporters that Obama “can’t win” in a general election.
Given all this, it’s a very good thing that Penn is out. Since joining the campaign, he and his firm billed more than $13 million. He sowed strife within the campaign’s ranks. And whatever his brilliance, to critics watching CNN and MSNBC, he represented the breathless machinations of the Clinton camp. It was fitting that her man behind the curtain was this sweaty, haggard—most outlets use the word rumpled —reedy-voiced man who seemed to believe everything and nothing all at once. If anything, Obama should be trying to get Penn to stay.
But Penn’s biggest screw-up of all was not screwing up earlier. If the goal was to alienate working-class Pennsylvania voters who ferociously oppose free-trade deals and outsourcing, then his Colombia meeting could not have been better timed. Obama is narrowing the gap in the Keystone State. Trade unions have already released statements slamming Penn—and Clinton, by association—for hypocrisy. The Obama camp may choose to slam her for it, too. But for now, they’re sitting back and watching the show.