Poison Penn

1 comment May 8th, 2007at 02:00pm Posted by Eli

In case anyone’s wondering why I’m not wildly enthusiastic about Hillary for preznit, her employment of people like Mark Penn doesn’t exactly give me a warm fuzzy feeling:

As Hillary Clinton charges toward the Democratic nomination for President, her campaign has a coterie of influential advisers. There’s her husband, of course, widely regarded as one of the sharpest political strategists in the business. There’s uber-Washington insider and former head of the Democratic National Committee Terry McAuliffe. There are A-list policy wonks like former Treasury Secretary Bob Rubin. But perhaps the most important figure in the campaign is her pollster and chief strategist, Mark Penn, a combative workaholic. Penn is not yet a household name, but perhaps he should be. Inside Hillaryland, he has elaborately managed the centrist image Hillary has cultivated in the Senate. The campaign is polling constantly, and Penn’s interpretation of the numbers will in large part decide her political direction.

Yet Penn is no ordinary pollster. Beyond his connections to the Clintons, he not only polls for America’s biggest companies but also runs one of the world’s premier PR agencies. This creates a dilemma for Hillary: Penn represents many of the interests whose influence candidate Clinton–in an attempt to appeal to an increasingly populist Democratic electorate–has vowed to curtail. Is what’s good for Penn and his business good for Hillary’s political career? And furthermore, can she convincingly claim to fight for the average American with Penn guiding strategy in her corner?

Despite the risks he poses, it’s easy to figure out why Hillary clings to Penn. The Clintons (like the Bushes) put a premium on loyalty, and they credit Penn with saving Bill’s presidency. After the 1994 election, Democrats had just lost both houses of Congress and Clinton was floundering in the polls. At the urging of his wife, Bill turned to Dick Morris, a controversial friend from their time in Arkansas. Morris knew Penn from his days as a pollster in New York and brought him into the White House. Morris decided what to poll and Penn polled it. They immediately pushed Clinton to the right, enacting the now-infamous strategy of “triangulation,” which co-opted Republican policies like welfare reform and tax cuts and emphasized small-bore issues that supposedly cut across the ideological divide. “They were the ones who said ‘Make the ’96 election about nothing except V-Chips and school uniforms,'” says a former Clinton adviser….

Penn, who had previously worked in the business world for companies like Texaco and Eli Lilly, brought his corporate ideology to the White House. After moving to Washington he aggressively expanded his polling firm, Penn, Schoen & Berland (PSB)…. A variety of controversial clients enlisted PSB. The firm defended Procter and Gamble’s Olestra drug from charges that it caused anal leakage, blamed Texaco’s bankruptcy on greedy jurors and market-tested genetically modified foods for Monsanto….

…The massive PR empire WPP Group acquired Penn’s polling firm for an undisclosed sum in 2001 and four years later named him worldwide CEO of one of its most prized properties, the PR firm Burson-Marsteller (B-M)….

Burson-Marsteller is hardly a natural fit for a prominent Democrat. The firm has represented everyone from the Argentine military junta to Union Carbide after the 1984 Bhopal disaster in India, in which thousands were killed when toxic fumes were released by one of its plants, to Royal Dutch Shell, which has been accused of massive human rights violations in Nigeria. B-M pioneered the use of pseudo-grassroots front groups, known as “astroturfing,” to wage stealth corporate attacks against environmental and consumer organizations. It set up the National Smokers Alliance on behalf of Philip Morris to fight tobacco regulation in the early 1990s. Its current clients include major players in the finance, pharmaceutical and energy industries. In 2006, with Penn at the helm, the company gave 57 percent of its campaign contributions to Republican candidates.

And on and on it goes. There’s a lot of guilt by association, in that Penn has an awful lot of Republican dirty-tricksters working for and with him, but I find those campaign contributions to be particularly telling about Penn’s true allegiance.

[F]ew Democratic consultants so consistently and publicly advocate an ideology that perfectly complements their corporate clients. Every election cycle Penn discovers a new group of swing voters–“soccer moms,” “wired workers,” “office park dads”–who happen to be the key to the election and believe the same thing: “Outdated appeals to class grievances and attacks upon corporate perfidy only alienate new consistencies and ring increasingly hollow,” Penn has written. Through his longtime association with the Democratic Leadership Council, Penn has been pushing pro-corporate centrism for years. Many of the same companies that underwrite the DLC, such as Eli Lilly, AT&T, Texaco and Microsoft, also happen to be clients of Penn’s.

This is why the DLC is a scam. Their entire raison d’etre is to represent corporate interests (and to hook Democrats up with the mad corporate loot), but they dress it up as politically savvy centrism, like it’s an actual strategy for getting votes. But it doesn’t get votes – it just makes corporations happy.

Yet despite occupying such a divisive place in the Democratic Party and outsized role in the corporate world–and despite his company’s close ties to Republican political operatives and the Bush White House–Penn remains a leading figure in Hillary’s campaign, pitching the inevitability of her nomination to donors and party bigwigs. According to the New York Times, “[Hillary] Clinton responds to Penn’s points with exclamations like, Oh, Mark, what a smart thing to say!” Politically, his presence means that triangulation is alive and well inside the campaign and that despite her populist forays, Hillary won’t stray too far from the center. “Penn has a lot of influence on her, no doubt about it,” says New York political consultant Hank Sheinkopf, who worked with Penn in ’96. “He’s not going to let her drift too far left.”

Ick. Really, there’s just no way I can support Hillary as the nominee. I’ll support her if, God forbid, she wins the nomination, but I won’t be happy about it.

Entry Filed under: Clinton,Democrats,Politics,Wankers

1 Comment

  • 1. charley  |  May 8th, 2007 at 9:48 pm

    great post.

    i really hope obama, edwards would put together a message that could put the kibosh on this “centrist” crap. so far i don’t see it.

    the center can not hold…. yadda, yadda, yadda…

    this country is mental, we get what we deserve at this point.


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