Tina K. Russell

March 3, 2008


Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , — Tina Russell @ 9:23 pm

How did the Clinton campaign get here? – Los Angeles Times

Mark Penn is one of my least favorite people in the world, and it’s been this way for some time. (See, I hated him before it was cool!) It would take too long for me to recount here why I dislike him (besides the fact that his most recent book, Microtrends, was surely meticulously designed to piss me off), but today, we can add a new reason: he’s bad for Hillary.

Well, we’ve known that for a while now, as Mark Penn’s “Strong! Experienced! Solutions!” mantra has sank like a stone when given to a populace fed up with the way things are. (Big party switches are like that… you don’t want to emphasize experience in a race that’s essentially a referendum on the status quo.) He should have seen this happening, as the voters this time were most moved when Hillary shed a few tears on the eve of her New Hampshire victory, and we saw a human beneath that steely resolve. We suddenly remembered, oh yeah, we spend eight years with her as our well-regarded first lady, kind of a second aunt to the nation. We like her. We want her to win.

…But, Mark Penn insisted on staying the course and branding Hillary into obscurity. And that makes me sad, since–though my preference for the black guy is well-documented–she is a strong candidate, and I hate to see her go down by the hand of the person I dislike who wrote Microtrends.

That is, I hate to see her done in by old-fashioned politics that have stopped working in an interconnected, 50-state era… Mark Penn’s modus operandi of dividing people into the tiniest groups possible and then conquering 51% of them doesn’t work in a world where people flow from group to group with little societal pressure or inertia, and may–and likely do–exist in several of Penn’s beloved micro-demographics. (For all I know, he may have acknowledged that in Microtrends, but he certainly hasn’t internalized it.) People don’t look at Barack Obama and see a black guy from Chicago, people look at him and see one of us, the face of America. He might as well be every single autoworker in Michigan, employed or laid off, rolled into one. People don’t go through a demographic or issue checklist to see if they like him… he makes people feel good. He earns their trust. People feel, rightly or wrongly (and, I think, rightly), that he’d make a good President.

Remember, when people pick a President… it’s almost like picking a roommate. You’re going to be seeing this person on TV every day for four to eight years. This person will be the international face of America, emblazoned on newspaper and Web headlines day after day, and will shape the internal philosophy and foreign policy of your country. When foreigners see your country, they will think of your leader. It’s a situation where a last-minute switch due to cold feet is a strong impulse. Voting for a representative, voting for Senator… you might pick somebody you won’t like, if you think they’ll fight for your interests, or do a good job in the seat. But for President… it’s important you like them, because you’ll be spending a lot of time with them for the next few years.

And with Barack Obama, there’s a strong impulse where you feel a certain hope, a ray of sunlight in your voting booth… yes! Yes! I’ll take a chance on this untested candidate. I want him to be the one who represents America. Hillary and Obama are mostly the same on the issues (though key differences put me in Obama’s camp even before considering the issue of character, which I think is strong for both but stronger for Obama in the role of President), so Hillary needs to differentiate herself. A mean-spirited worrywart, however, is not how you want to define your brand, especially when Obama looks more and more Presidential with each debate and Hillary is reduced to petty complaints over question order and a perceived media campaign against her (bad move, Penn-I-mean-Hillary, going on the defensive… #1 rule of campaigning is that as soon as you go on the defensive, you’ve lost). (To those who say that John Kerry lost because he failed to go on the defensive… that’s different. He just ran and hid.)

Hillary’s needed a countermessage against Obama’s message of hope, and she failed. Her countermessage was that Obama is naïve, a message she should have abandoned immediately after Iowa because it solidified the Obama-centric story of him as the little candidate that could, a plucky Rucky who triumphed over the cynics. By keeping that message going, she looked mean-spirited and petty. And when she teared up before New Hampshire, her handlers attempted to repeat the magic by having her get misty again… and again, thinking it’s “we like sniffly Hillary” and not realizing there’s something behind it. We don’t need a President to look tough after eight years of a president who once declared victory by prancing around an aircraft carrier in a flight suit. It would be embarrassing, but poetic, for the first woman with a shot at the Presidency to lose to a man who was effeminate and… likable.

Back to what I meant to say in the first place (Mark Penn’s latest goof, and one with absolutely no excuse). Now he’s distancing himself from the campaign, saying he hasn’t been all that involved to begin with. You could say that, since he’s been practically asleep at the wheel the entire time, but the point is that he’s been at the wheel! He can’t insist on being called “chief strategist” one day, and insisting he’s just a pollster. And when Hillary has decided every step of the way to go with Penn’s narrative over competing options within her campaign, no matter how publicly they have always failed, you know that a) he’s in charge and b) he’s incompetent. He is Hillary’s Rumsfeld, not in terms of the creeping senility, but because he’s the commander who stuck with the wrong strategy to the end, and one that his dear leader stubbornly refuses to fire when new blood is desperately needed.

Hillary needs a change of message; as Jon Stewart brilliantly put it, her campaign theme of late has been “Hillary: Because a Deaf God Ignores Your Pleas.” There are a million ways she could have played off the Obama movement: if I ran her campaign (and oooh, would I be better at it than Penn), I think I’d try to play a strategy of taking in his energy, much the way that Dean energized the Democratic base, who then promptly voted for Kerry. One of the great marketing success stories of the 1990s was when Sega went from an unknown facing a monopoly to having over half the home videogame console market to itself by positioning itself as the console for older kids… the kind who bought Nintendo three years ago. They ran ads making fun of Nintendo as lacking Sega’s boldness, as having a mother-approved mascot who couldn’t hold a candle to Sonic’s ‘tude. I’m not saying Hillary Clinton should make fun of Obama or anything like that, but the best thing to do when you’re running against a “movement candidate” is to try and scoop up his movement. Convince people that you’re Obama 2.0, that the stuff he talks about is exactly why people should vote for you. Wink and nudge at a veep position for him. Don’t do any of this explicitly–the worst you could do is make yourself look redundant–but make your rivals look like your personal focus group, bubbling up the ideas you’ll be able to put into action.

Anyway, what I was going to get to is that you might think that Mark Penn is doing himself a favor for Hillary by distancing himself from her. After all, if Mark Penn is so unpopular now (there is justice in this world)–a divisive Karl Rove Lite, who sows the kind of bitterness that prevents one from creating a governing coalition or having a popular mandate–why shouldn’t he want to look like he just bumped into Hillary in an elevator somewhere?

Well, here’s the thing; if you want to be a fall guy, you have to take a fall. Saying that he hasn’t had much to do with Hillary’s campaign, after about a zillion news cycles saying her campaign is faltering and its messages have never worked, is saying, essentially, that it’s her fault, not his. If the man truly had principles, he’d take the heat and leave the campaign, keeping busy with his other lucrative consulting projects (the ones he keeps going during Hillary’s campaign). At the very least, he shouldn’t duck and let the pie hit Hillary. That’s low, and the sad part is that he probably doesn’t even know it.

He should add one more “microtrend” to his book: people who still believe a word he says.


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