April 7th, 2008
04:53 PM ET

David Gergen: A Clinton campaign without Mark Penn


Hillary Clinton

If Mark Penn had been a favorite within the Clinton campaign, it is difficult to believe that he would have been forced out over the Colombian affair.  Sure, it was a dumb mistake – a “what was he thinking” moment.  Still, it was a far cry from what one of Barack Obama’s top advisers did when he met with Canadian officials on NAFTA and his mistake properly set off a mini-firestorm.  So, in the ordinary course of things, Mark Penn’s apology and a few days of reassuring labor unions would have been enough to quiet things down – and Penn would still be calling the shots.


But it is apparent that Clinton topsiders detest Mark Penn and hold him uniquely responsible for what has gone wrong in the campaign.  When he went down last week, they lunged for the jugular and he couldn’t survive.


What difference will it make in the campaign, if any?  Short term, it is a setback for the Clintonites because it sends super delegates yet another signal of disarray in the ranks and it will be a source of chatter in the media for a while. (From the campaign’s point of view, the Petraeus hearings can’t start soon enough to take attention away from Penn.)  As far as Pennsylvania is concerned, it is doubtful that one voter in 100 will be directly affected by his departure.  “Mark Who?”    


But his departure could indirectly impact not just Pennsylvania but the rest of the primaries to come.  Only a few days ago, Carl Bernstein reported on CNN that the Clinton campaign was sitting on some nasty stuff about Obama – stuff they thought the media should have featured a long time ago – and the campaign was preparing to go hard negative with it.  We have heard rumors of this kind before and nothing has materialized, but there was a sense that perhaps in a desperate, 11th-hour bid for the nomination, the Clintons would throw the rest of the kitchen sink at Barack, and maybe the bathroom, too.

 All along, Mark Penn – along with President Clinton – has been portrayed as the chief advocate of going much more negative. But now with Penn gone, one wonders: has the prospect of an explosive negative attack disappeared with him? 




For Democrats in general and Mrs. Clinton in particular, the Penn resignation may be a blessing in disguise.  A no-holds-barred, negative fight to the finish within the party would have hurt both Barack and Hillary.  What is now turning off voters (especially independents) is not the length of the campaign but the nastiness.  The best strategy that Mrs. Clinton can follow now – one that would preserve the chances of a Democratic victory in the fall and preserve her reputation, too – is to pursue a gracious, warm, emotionally appealing campaign that draws people to her instead of trying to drive them away from Obama.  Indeed, if she had pursued that strategy more consistently from the beginning, she would almost certainly be closer to the nomination now. 


Mark Penn is a very bright man who has served the Clintons for a dozen years, often brilliantly; he was a guiding force in the re-election of Bill Clinton in 1996.  But for reasons that are unfathomable, he has not seemed to grasp how much good a more positive, uplifting campaign by Hillary would have done.   


– David Gergen, 360° Contributor

Comments to the 360° blog are moderated. What does that mean?

Filed under: David Gergen • Mark Penn • Raw Politics
soundoff (131 Responses)
  1. Andy Wilson NY Voting Expat in Dom Rep

    "Be honest about what you see, get out of the way and let the story reveal itself." Anderson Cooper. David, wise words and a standard I generally expect of you – you failed me today.

    April 7, 2008 at 11:28 pm |
  2. Georgia

    I have to laugh when I read these comments lambasting Mr. Gergen's overt preference for Senator Clinton. When did the media hang up their personal political biases and go neutral? And when did the public condone that act? Wouldn't it be much more honest if political pundits, commentators, even reporters spoke honestly about their picks for the nominees? That way, we as viewers/readers/listeners wouldn't have to jump down their throats everytime the slighest hint of preference surfaced in their dialogues. Just a thought.

    April 7, 2008 at 11:25 pm |
  3. Shannon from Washington

    Personally, I have seen no evidence of Hillary's ability to manage her campaign let alone the country. I think this presents much more serious issues than the Canadians did with Barack Obama, in that Hillary has continually made poor decisions and this is another example. Barack IMMEDIATELY corrected the error in his campaign. There is no way that he would be "Swift-Boated". Hillary not only has been shown vunerable, she has been shown unable to respond effectively to these hiccups. She definitely hasn't responded in any substantial way to any of these issues. How would she EVER last in a General Election?

    April 7, 2008 at 11:23 pm |

    This is all one big trick - Hillary knew about the negotiations with the Columbians well in advance! The only mistake here is that Penn got caught! He will be the fall guy on this one. Also, Penn is not going anywhere, he is being used for covert operations and will still be dictating the campaign.

    Camp Hillary did the same thing with the Canadians during the Ohio primary and Obama got blamed for it when it the Clintons!

    Do the math - why would Penn jeopardize $10 million that he is earning from Hillary for a fee of $300,000 with the Colombians? It does not compute!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    This campaign is about numbers (delegates, popular vote, money, etc) - always numbers - so don't lose focus.

    April 7, 2008 at 11:18 pm |
  5. gary mitchell

    At this rate Hillary may need Bill to open the door for her in Denver. What a sorry state of affairs (only a slight pun intended) if it should actually come to that.

    April 7, 2008 at 11:11 pm |
  6. Annie Kate

    I haven't thought the campaign was that negative; I've seen worse where the candidates actually slung mud – this one has been more the supporters and the media than the candidates.

    If the Clintons have some things that voters need to know about Obama there should be a way to release the information without it appearing negative – if the information is true voters need to know about it.

    McCain has run a very respectful campaign so far and even though the Democratic candidates haven't been that negative they still have a far piece to go to have the same classiness that McCain has shown so far.

    Annie Kate
    Birmingham AL

    April 7, 2008 at 11:04 pm |
  7. karela

    I'm surprised that David Gergen would offer the Obama team with Canada, incorrect, story again. When the actual notes of that informal meeting were shown, it was established that nothing was said in private that was different then Obama's public stance on NAFTA, i.e. need to renegotiate in specific areas. But we do now know that the Clinton team actually did contact the Canadians and tell them not to worry about NAFTA but to take the Clinton political rhetoric with a "grain of salt."

    The prime minister's top aide said this in a room full of reporters for Pete sake.

    April 7, 2008 at 10:56 pm |
  8. Richard Wester

    Senator Clinton is a prevaricator, we all know this . She prevaricated to us about landing under fire and running to vehicles . She thinks the American public has cannon fodder for brains. We all know Mr. Penn is not going to leave her campaign. She will do anything to get the nomination

    April 7, 2008 at 10:54 pm |
  9. G. N. Penley

    Hillary is her own problem. Can't make a silk purse out of a sow. (Oops, I forgot the "ear" part.)

    April 7, 2008 at 10:45 pm |
  10. d.L.

    Thank you for being fair and balanced.
    I am beginning to think those days are gone ...when people
    in the media are "fair and balanced"
    Hopefully the will at least try and stay acurate

    April 7, 2008 at 10:41 pm |
  11. Giselle Evans

    Well, I would like to support whomever the Democratic Nominee is but I absolutely will NOT support a mud-slinging or a backdoor candidate. In that instance, I would rather just sit the election out and deal with McCain as president.

    I am really disappointed in the Clintons. Not only is a negative primary contest disheartening, it is downright stupid - unless one wants to see a republican back in the White House.

    April 7, 2008 at 10:35 pm |
  12. Barry, Ridgewood, NJ

    I hope Mr. Gergen is correct about the public tiring of the negativity – much of it couched in hyperbolic terms like the above "lunged for the jugular" (not to fault you, sir). But, honestly, I don't see it.

    Negativity, rudeness, and hyperbole are so contagious. Why, just look at some of the comments above.

    April 7, 2008 at 10:35 pm |
  13. CJ

    No matter how it is spun, no one can honestly say that the Clintons did not know of Mr Penns back ground. He has worked for them for 16 + years. Truth be known, they were just hoping she would get the democratic nomination before this came to light.

    April 7, 2008 at 10:22 pm |
  14. David

    Ordinarily, I think the world of David Gergen. However, comparing the media fabricated NAFTAgate with the very real two-faced personality of Penn and the Clinton campaign is unconscienable (sp?).

    Gergen should know better. The premise of the comparison is a lie.

    April 7, 2008 at 10:21 pm |
  15. CJ

    How true is are the reports from Canada that it was Hillary's campaign that contacted the canadian government and stated they were only stumping. Many of my friends from canada that I talk to have stated that this information is well known up there and that it was all over the news media. Is this true?

    April 7, 2008 at 10:20 pm |
  16. Rita

    No Canada didn't totally refute the claim . They just said it didn't go down the way it was reported. Hummmmm. Mr Penn is a non- story. Mr Obama's head advisor, Mr Axilrod, also works for a company that advises companys that want to do business with our goverment. Guess we should look a little deeper on that one. It's all nonsence, all these people are not running for President ! It 's all mudding up the waters, when it comes to the issues.

    April 7, 2008 at 10:19 pm |
  17. Alice

    David: I don't understand why you say the Canadian NAFTA memorandum "properly set off a mini-firestorm" with respect to Obama. That memorandum was de-bunked as false hearsay right after it cost Obama the Ohio primary. In fact, it turned out Hillary's campaign - not Obama's - was the one giving assurances to the Canadians. Why doesn't this get more coverage? Alice

    April 7, 2008 at 10:10 pm |
  18. Rita

    Thanks Christine, The polls show that Hillary has got most of the negative media coverage 87 % to 53 %. No, I don't think the Media wants Hillary{a strong women} to be President. Most of the Media stations are owned by people with their own reasons for picking a President. The Media has high-jacked this election like no other. The really good coverage or lack of negative coverage for Obama, shows where they stand. They should have no say, Their suspose to be netural.I've stopped watching Olberman, Hardball, and the likes, because it gets pretty sicking. Hillary is far better to solve the problems we face. Obama has to go through the learning process. At least Hillary has learned a few lessons along the way. And yes, I lke her.

    April 7, 2008 at 10:09 pm |
  19. Cathy in VT

    It sounds like he will still be around in a "demoted" capacity and frankly I think they should have totally cut ties with him, because I think Hillary cannot afford to keep the connection at this point. I agree with David's comments but I think this may very well hurt Hillary in PA when you add it to a situation where the voters appear to be increasingly turned off by Hillary's aggresive "I'm going to win this one way or another" attitude.

    April 7, 2008 at 10:03 pm |
  20. Mecca

    Bravo, Christine! I am also sick with the the people on this blog and the media hate for Hillary!

    April 7, 2008 at 10:03 pm |
  21. Kumar

    No matter what, the campaign is still helping who think positive. All is good, always leave a space to correct the mistake. Its never late to say sorry. Action has always reaction. Make it better for all. Peace all.

    April 7, 2008 at 9:54 pm |
  22. sage bill

    Hillary needs to disclose as much as she can about this sham named Obama. I still cannot understand how one speech by him forgives his 20 years of intimacy with a rabid, misanthropic America basher. If any other candidate had this kind of baggage and tried to lie about the association, they would be out in a second. Instead, the media is making an equally big deal about some stupid Bosnia comments or a parable about a pregnant woman. Time to wake up to the reality of who Obama is and what his friends and family represent. Here's to a ninth inning rally by Senator Clinton that disposes of this false prophet named Barack Obama.

    April 7, 2008 at 9:52 pm |
  23. Hillary no Thacter by any stretch!

    Margaret Thatcher would never have played the "Woman Card" as Hillary does so often. This is another documented fact, but of course Hillary and her supporters are clearly not impressed by facts, only hearsay and scurrilous innuendo.

    April 7, 2008 at 9:51 pm |
  24. Jacqueline

    Mr. Gergen,

    Sounds like Sen. needed and still does need you to be her top-dog advisor.

    April 7, 2008 at 9:45 pm |
  25. Mecca

    Hi, Anderson, it is obvious that no matter what Hillary does, for most CNN reporters and commentators, she is always doing the wrong thing!If she kept Mark, it would be bad, if she removes him as Chief Advisor, that's not enough, If she is rich... well that's a sin (as if politicians were all poor!!!) and if she sold more books than Obama that's a minus for her! And the best of all... Jack Cafferty... he always reads 4 or 5 damaging comments about Hillary and only one good one, it is so obvious if you read his bloggs! Come on, CNN report facts, stop trying to lead us into voting for Obama!
    Mecca from Puerto Rico (and Mecca is my REAL name!)

    April 7, 2008 at 9:42 pm |
  26. Amy, Philly, PA

    Do you think you could explain exactly what happened with "NAFTAgate"? My impression was that the initial news reports were all wrong, that some of Clinton's people may have been involved, and that the Canadian govt even apologized, but now you're suggesting it's worse than what Penn did. There seems to be so much misinformation concerning this issue. Could you set the record straight? Thanks!

    April 7, 2008 at 9:35 pm |
  27. Jean

    Several bloggers have referred to the Canadian flap. I wish the media would clarify for once and for all that it was the Hillary camp that was talking to the Canadians and that "somehow" the Hillary camp wound up charging it was Obama's. The Canadian's discovered the truth and tried to clarify, but for some unknown and still very interesting there was no big follow-up.

    Considering it may well have lost Obama hundreds if not thousands of votes, it was a masterful and horribly creepy dirty trick. One could almost call it election fraud. It should be revisited in detail. I feel Penn was at the bottom of it.

    As for obama not being adequately vetted. Some dogs don't have fleas to pick.

    April 7, 2008 at 9:34 pm |
  28. jab

    Canada refuted Hillary's claims that Barack did the wink wink. Colombia did not refute Mark Penn's involvement. To think that Hillary does not know what her chief strategist is up to on a daily basis is totally absurd. Such hypocracy!

    April 7, 2008 at 9:33 pm |
  29. Kirk From Michigan

    David ,

    Hillary Clinton Has for years proven to this country what she stands for .Raising those in poverty out of poverty , Building up the middle class and making America strong . You were there while Bill Clinton was in office . You know Hillary didn't just sit back and play first lady . She got up and fought for poeple like me . she does want a better America for all americans . I am proud , and blessed to have Hillary Clinton on my side . She will always have my support .

    Thank You .

    April 7, 2008 at 9:29 pm |
  30. Independent from Ga

    If Mark Penn did anything for Hillary clinton, it was to allow this country to see what a deceiptful person she truly is. You state that it was one of Abama's staff that started the NAFTA talks, when in fact it was Clinton. I believe the country has had enough of the Bush=Clinton dynasties, and are ready to change directions. This woman has proven time and again she cannot be trust with this most sacred office. If she were to somehow get (note that I did not say win), I will definitely vote for the Republican Party. At least with McCain we know what we are getting. She is beyond saving.

    April 7, 2008 at 9:25 pm |
  31. Mary

    For those of you who do not believe the Clinton campaign has dirt on Obama: Do you seriously think she's the only one?? Has it occurred to anyone that the Republicans WANT him to be the nominee? Has anyone wondered why??? Because they have some of the same dirt on him she does,if not more! It should be glaringly obvious when some one with as little experience has Obama has,is fawned over by everyone on the planet. Even Oprah jumped on that wagon. Is it not a little strange that he seems to be so squeeky clean and constantly compares himself to JFK? If he's anything like JFK,he's as much a womanizer as Bill Clinton! Mark my words,the dirt will start to show.If he does manage to get elected,I for one will be proud to say "I knew all along he was dishonest" when he screws up big time due to lack of experience. I trust Hillary to fix the mess we're in. She's a proven fighter.I don't think she has any more dirt on her to be dug up.She's been there and dealt with it all very gracefully. So go ahead,keep believing Obama is the second coming.No one is that good!!!!

    April 7, 2008 at 9:21 pm |
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