Thursday, February 14, 2008

The poisonous Mark Penn launches another one of his errant missiles on behalf of Hillary Clinton

In American politics, you can attack your political opponents all you want. Almost anything is fair game. But disrespect your opponent's supporters, and you're asking for trouble -- partly because it seems so arrogant, and partly because it reeks of clueless desperation. And that's just what Clinton campaign strategist Mark Penn did yesterday.

Penn was in a campaign conference call with the media yesterday when he disparaged the support Barack Obama has received.
“Could we possibly have a nominee who hasn't won any of the significant states -- outside of Illinois?” Chief Strategist Mark Penn said. “That raises some serious questions about Sen. Obama.”
I took that personally as a resident of another state that is likely to follow Penn's other states into insignificance next week when we in Wisconsin hold our primary. It reminded me of another time I was insulted by a politician.

It was 1973, and Madison's conservative Republican mayor Bill Dyke was running for reelection against 27-year-old upstart radical alderman Paul Soglin. TIME magazine looked back at the dynamics a year later.
In 1968 his fellow students took advantage of their control of the city's Eighth District to elect him to the Madison city council.

Even as an alderman, however, Soglin remained an outsider. He continued to take part in student demonstrations, was twice arrested and, on one occasion, bailed out by a sympathetic fireman. He clashed with Mayor William Dyke over such issues as police brutality and budgets. But he also learned about municipal government, studying substantive subjects such as housing and transportation and getting a feel for such arcane matters as sewer maintenance and zoning regulations.

His political education proved to be valuable. In early 1973, when Senator George McGovern's campaign organization was still a political force in Madison, Soglin leaped into the mayoral race as an independent. The campaign, which took an ugly turn when Dyke appealed to Madison's "decent people" to keep him in office, was bitter. Soglin's more statesmanlike approach gave him 52% of the vote.
In 1973, the people Bill Dyke suggested were less than decent were part of a tidal wave of change, and Dyke did not understand how to cope with it. Now, 35 years later, Mark Penn is also facing a tidal wave of political change, on a much larger scale. His cynical, poll-driven "centrist" strategies seem ill-equipped to deal with it. In both cases, the men took their frustration out on their opponent's supporters rather than dealing more positively with the situation they faced.

Penn, whose background was spelled out in a telling Washington Post profile last year, came into the Clinton White House in 1994 with Dick Morris and stayed on after Morris departed in his own cloud of scandal. He served the Clintons loyally during the impeachment battle, but Hillary should have cut him loose a long time ago. The political landscape has changed a lot since they first hooked up, and Penn's influence has played a big part in her failure to adapt effectively. His latest gaffe is just one more example. With friends like this, who needs enemies?

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