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May 20, 2013 3:46 PM Hillary Clinton Will Pass the Mark Penn Test

By Ed Kilgore

Last month Salon’s Alex Pareene spoke for a lot of progressive insiders in resisting being carried along in the tide for Hillary 2016 until a key question was answered:

The question for someone considering whether or not to support Clinton in 2016 is, will a Clinton 2016 campaign pass the Mark Penn Test? The Mark Penn Test, which I just invented, determines whether or not a person should be trusted with the presidency, based solely on one criterion: Whether or not they pay Mark Penn to do anything for their campaign. Paying Mark Penn means you’ve failed the Mark Penn Test.

Pareene’s indictment of Penn is mostly on grounds of alleged incompetence and general hackitude, in company with some other Clinton family retainers:

Mark Penn is just the worst example of the general Clinton family habit of associating with the most repulsive party hacks the Democrats have to offer. Her campaign was a dream team of generally useless hacks, from sweatered communications director Howard Wolfson to charmless fundraiser Terry McAuliffe to ill-tempered Harold Ickes (who, unlike the rest of the campaign, at least seemed mostly competent). These are the same Clintons who are responsible for the national stature, such as it is, of Dick Morris.

But a lot of the hostility to Penn that is near-universal among progressives is ideological, too. Penn (whose background was mostly in corporate polling) was brought into the Clinton White House by Dick Morris during the runup to the 1996 presidential campaign, when Clinton was (according to many House Democrats then and since) “triangulating” against a congressional Democratic Party that harbored significant (and in the House, majority) opposition to his trade and welfare reform legislation. After Morris self-destructed in 1996, Penn became the most visible and abrasive White House “strategist,” and a continuing lightning rod for liberal complaints about the policies of the 42d president. He also developed an unsavory reputation for number-cooking among many political insiders, though a lot of that was probably attributable to his relatively low interest in pollster transparency.

When Penn re-emerged as Hillary Clinton’s pollster and “strategist” going into 2008, the personal and ideological cases against him converged, and more than any other one figure in Hillaryland, he became a devil-figure both within and beyond HRC’s campaign. He was particularly associated with the campaign faction favoring a harsh negative approach to Barack Obama, and was indelibly identified with the famous “3 AM Ad” that Republicans are still alluding to in their claims that Benghazi! proves Obama can’t be trusted with national security.

Personally, having dealt with Penn a little big over the years, I attribute a lot of the devil-talk to his personality rather than his politics or skills—or his ideology, for that matter (it’s always interesting when people in politics are attacked simultaneously for lack of principle and for ideological heresy). But he does clearly represent an approach to public opinion where form follows function a bit too thorougly (here’s my own mixed-at-best review in WaMo of a book by Penn that he published in 2007). And for the life of me I don’t understand why Clinton’s 2008 campaign kept putting him in front of cameras as its top spokesman.

It’s all kind of academic, though, because as we learn from Jason Horowitz’ big story at WaPo about turnover in Hillaryland, Penn (and for that matter, Howard Wolfson) is no longer a leading citizen of Hillaryland. Now on Microsoft’s payroll, he appears to have gone back to his corporate roots, and nobody connected to a potential 2016 HRC campaign sees him in their futures.

So now that Clinton’s passed the “Mark Penn Test,” and is likely to spend much of the next many months as the principle or secondary target of the Benghazi!, she obsession, she could probably head towards 2016 with her left flank much better covered.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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