Hillary Clinton’s decision to remove Mark Penn as her chief strategist on Sunday came too late to save her campaign and amounted to too little to restructure it, Democrat officials have said.
By Edward Luce in Washington
In spite of being demoted, Mr Penn, who has so far billed Mrs Clinton for $13m (€8.26m, £6.52m) worth of campaign work, will stay on as her consultant, pollster and direct mail provider.
Mr Penn, who was undone by a meeting last week with the Colombian ambassador in his role as chief executive of Burson-Marsteller, the public relations company, was originally due to be demoted in early January following Mrs Clinton’s poor third place showing in the Iowa caucuses, which kicked off the nominating season.
But the former first lady’s unexpected victory in New Hampshire five days later saved Mr Penn and others, including Patti Solis Doyle, her campaign manager, who was eventually removed in February. Had Mrs Clinton lost New Hampshire, she would have radically restructured her campaign, say insiders.
Although it was Ms Doyle who gambled Mrs Clinton’s declining January finances on the “Super Tuesday” primary at the expense of the post-February 5 states that Barack Obama swept by landslides, Mr Penn is accused of “triangulating” Mrs Clinton’s campaign message for the general election on the assumption that she would be the nominee.
“You could say that New Hampshire was a pyrrhic victory for Mrs Clinton,” says one Democratic consultant. “It was like a patient who had a heart attack and then after a brief reprieve goes straight back to eating Big Macs and French fries.”
But some warn against rushing to blame Mr Penn for the campaign’s continuing woes. They point to the fact that it took 72 hours for Mrs Clinton to demote him – a valuable slot in the news cycle that was dominated by speculation about his departure. And even then, Mrs Clinton did not sack him.
They say that her equivocation underlines more deep-seated problems with the way her campaign is managed. “A candidate who was in charge and decisive would have either backed Mark Penn or sacked him within 24 hours,” said one veteran Democratic operative. “To take three days to do neither points up to a real timidity that has characterised the way Hillary has campaigned.”
Contrary to her reputation for being tough and decisive, Mrs Clinton has allowed significant personality clashes to fester within her campaign, not all of which will be addressed by Mr Penn’s demotion.
Mr Penn had fallings-out with Harold Ickes and Mandy Grunwald, both of whom are longstanding Clinton advisers.
But divisions persist over how Mrs Clinton should focus her campaign for the remaining 10 contests. She has restlessly shifted tactics at different points in the cycle.
At some points she has emphasised her “human” qualities. At others she has been more aggressive. She has also shifted from stressing her superior experience over Mr Obama to claiming a greater ability to bring about “change”.
“One of the bitter ironies is that Hillary Clinton is accused of running a negative campaign when she never committed to being aggressive for very long,” said one Democratic consultant.
“If you’re going to be aggressive you should stick to it and back it up with millions on TV ads. She never did that. She has the worst of both worlds – a reputation for being aggressive without any of the fruits of having followed through.”
In contrast, Mr Obama continues to run a disciplined campaign with few obvious personality clashes. Opinion polls yesterday showed Mr Obama’s lead over Mrs Clinton extending to 23 per cent in North Carolina, which holds a primary in early May. In Pennsylvania, polls show Mrs Clinton’s lead narrowing.
“Even if Mrs Clinton sacked her entire team and produced the best campaign in history, it is hard to imagine how she could overturn Obama’s lead,” said one Democratic official.