Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Rethinking Hillary

Editor' s Note: This is an excerpt of a longer article about Hillary Clinton's circle of advisers, which will appear May 16 in the print version of The Nation.

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 ├╝ber-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?

...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). It was said that Penn was the only person who could get Bill Clinton and Bill Gates on the same phone line. Penn's largest client was Microsoft, and he saw no contradiction between working for both the plaintiff and the defense in what was at the time the country's largest antitrust case. ...

A host of prominent Republicans fall under Penn's purview. B-M's Washington lobbying arm, BKSH & Associates, is run by Charlie Black, a leading GOP operative who maintains close ties to the White House, including Karl Rove, and was former partners with Lee Atwater, the political consultant who crafted the Willie Horton smear campaign used by George H.W. Bush against Michael Dukakis in 1988. Black regularly disparages the Clintons; he has called Hillary a "martyr figure" and said Bill "tearfully embraced...government preferences for [a] homosexual lifestyle." In recent years Black's clients have included the likes of Iraq's Ahmad Chalabi, the darling of the neocon right in the run-up to the war; Lockheed Martin; and Occidental Petroleum. In the summer of 2005 he landed a contract with the Lincoln Group, the disgraced PR firm that covertly placed US military propaganda in Iraqi news outlets. The agreement, according to Intelligence Online, allowed the Lincoln Group to "tap into BKSH's extensive contacts in the Republican administration."

...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

Read the complete article...

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