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. John

    It is to some extent true!!!!!!!! But my question is that if she is ready as commander in chief from day 1, how Penn could have influenced her to shift towards a nasty politics? Does not it prove that she is a mask of the old vested group of Bill's regime? If a would be president does not have that control or decency or can easily be blinded by greed for power, how can she be crowned with the most powerfull post of the world? Where is her judgemnt??? The nastiness she brought in the politics is the proof of her unworthiness not only for the president of America but also a good soul or a decent citizen!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    April 7, 2008 at 7:38 pm |
  2. Kathleen, NC

    Hillary has created all of the negativity going from her campaign. And that is how she will attempt to run the US. Penn and Bill C. have probably encouraged it, but I believe that they are all dishonest is every way.

    I do believe that Hillary is holding back, that the TRUE Hillary has yet to be seen and that Hillary is even nastier, more self-centered, and lies even more than the Hillary we have seen in the last few weeks. I also believe that she knew what Penn was doing, she knew about the Canadian meeting, she knows that her bills aren’t being paid (at the expense of many families and small business owners), and I believe that knows her “mis-speaks” are fictional.

    She will create more nastiness, at Obama’s expense, and McCain will in-fact win in November. BUT….. if we are all really lucky, we will go through this again in 4 years.

    April 7, 2008 at 7:37 pm |
  3. DaveW

    This was an excellent article. Penn did not see the value of a positive campaign because he had never seen "positive" campaigns work well. That he has been severely demoted to a place without authority in Hillary's campaign gives all of us hope for the future.

    Perhaps now we can find out: Is Hillary a person of good character?

    April 7, 2008 at 7:37 pm |
  4. Travis-NC

    It's pretty obvious that you're not from the U.S. or you would know that Hillary can't win, and that actually the more time Obama has to campaign and meet the people the more support he gets.

    Sorry for not addressing the above article, just wanted to address the above poster.

    April 7, 2008 at 7:36 pm |
  5. Oma Arizona

    I totally agree, Hillary is at her best when she is kind and gentle, and the Party is then served best. A pity she did not realize that early on.

    April 7, 2008 at 7:36 pm |
  6. Char

    David...you are so right for the most part. With the exception of the mini-firestorm comment. Hillary should have focused on her campaign and how to solve the housing crisis, healthcare, Iraq war, etc., instead of her whole focus being on Obama. It got personal and she let her feelings get in the way...such a WOMAN thing.

    April 7, 2008 at 7:35 pm |
  7. Braden

    Obama is the best leader we have running for president. If you want to get this country moving in the right direction and are ready for change. He is the answe. If you want to be stuck in the way America has been for the last 15-20 years. Make sure you vote for Maccain or Hillary. I assure you they wil get and keep you there. And once your there you will see you still are not getting any positive results.

    Change is good, embrace it. Go Obama!!!!

    April 7, 2008 at 7:31 pm |
  8. Cheryl

    This is just another example of Hillary's poor judgement and management style. With all the potential support she could have drawn to her campaign, it continues to remain in shambles. There is no doubt that both she and Bill are seasoned politicians. Old time politics don't work any longer. They just don't get the message. I wouldn't trust Hillary to run anything; let alone the country.

    April 7, 2008 at 7:30 pm |
  9. gerry

    David Gergen

    I question your comparision to Obama's aid meeting with Canadian officials, since that's been debudnked some time ago. Penn wasn't fired, it was a ruse by the Clinton campaign to make it appear he's gone-but he isn't.

    All other news networks are reporting those facts, why is CNN so pro-Clinton?

    Do you still get paid by the Clintons' David?

    April 7, 2008 at 7:30 pm |
  10. maxine

    Hillary should be running the show, not Penn or Bill. But unfortunately I see the handwriting on the wall.....we are getting much of the same as we did with Bill and who gave us NAFTA and who was on the Board at Wal-Mart.....which is the BIGGEST importer from China....so tell me who made $$$$ from that decision, oh 109 million of them to be exact. Has Hillary paid her back depts in Ohio, her employee's health insurance, come on find out this info this is reporting. How is that lawsuit doing in California? Penn had nothing to do with all the above, but I do find it interesting that he kept his day job, while helping her and you tell me how that looks to Columbian benefactors?????

    The dots are starting to connect.

    April 7, 2008 at 7:28 pm |
  11. Phil Newton Murphy, Oregon

    Penn was the reflection of the Clinton campaign, not the face. A singularly ungracious reflection of a singularly ungracious and utilitarian group of people who need to go away.

    Bye, now.

    April 7, 2008 at 7:27 pm |
  12. Phil - Vancouver

    Clinton/Penn were a step behind this entire campaign. After they won New Hampshire they should have foreseen a tight race on Feb 5th and organized a full campaign including caucus', they should have realized that they needed to attract liberals to win, the real swing vote this campaign. I believe that Clinton had the best chance to win in the Fall, but Hillary shouldn't claim the Nomination this way. She lost and its her own campaigns fault.

    April 7, 2008 at 7:26 pm |
  13. Kevin -Seattle

    Not buying Mark Penn as the fall guy. Remember Bill and Hillary are seasoned veterans of the political games and they don't do anything against their will. Mark Penn and the Clintons are clones of each other. Hillary is not "warm", she's a pitbull with rabies. She doesn't know any other way.

    April 7, 2008 at 7:26 pm |
  14. Brandon

    Nice attempt at false equivalence between what Penn did and the nonsense over Obama's adviser and NAFTA, which has been disputed by the Canadian government. For bonus points, you even managed to allege (falsely) that what Penn did wasn't as bad, or as damaging.

    Then again, this kind of garbage is par for the course with Gergen. It is unsurprising that a former adviser to Bill's administration would manage to work in a reference to a Clinton hit job on Obama. The only surprising part is that the rest of this article, about what kind of campaign Hillary ought to be running, is pretty much spot on.

    April 7, 2008 at 7:23 pm |
  15. Mandy, CA

    If Hillary has nasty stuff on Obama, she will use it before teh PA vote. Just better hope that it doesn't backfire on her though...she needs the win...not a tie! And so far everytime she throws stuff at Obama, it somehow gets on her...

    April 7, 2008 at 7:23 pm |
  16. Deepali , CT

    I think that Mark Penn leaving was excellent for the Clinton Campaign.

    April 7, 2008 at 7:21 pm |
  17. Texan

    Mr Gergen, offlate your personal affiliation , some call it biasedness, to a particular group is showing up on your political commentary these days. Your reporting should be unbiased.

    What is it that you have started picking up on Clinton, and advising anybody's election campaigns what to do and what to say, like you gave your billion dollar advise to Clinton what she should've spoken on MLK day.

    Role of media is to report whats happening on ground without distorting the facts, public will make its own opinion.

    April 7, 2008 at 7:21 pm |
  18. marsha

    Jeepers Gergen! Are you STILL on the Clinton payroll?

    April 7, 2008 at 7:20 pm |
  19. Jan Hjelm

    I have followed all the twists and turns of this presidential election. The general impression I get is that Obama will be the best candidate to both represent the people of the USA and represent the USA on the international arena.

    Clinton come across as being hungry for power. She seems to be capable of anything, legal or not, to reach the ultimate power. Her lies and innuendos are so blatant that any sane voter cringes at them.

    I hope the media will take hold of this nickname and use it: Mz. Spoke.

    April 7, 2008 at 7:19 pm |
  20. David, Silver Spring, MD

    Always the rumors and innuendo about some "explosive" information about the opponent. In the technology world they call it FUD–fear, uncertainty, doubt–and it's intended to keep buyers from committing to the purchase of a competing product, not with concrete reasons, but with vague, amorphous, hints that if you go with the other company's product, you'll regret it "soon enough."

    If it isn't these vague references to "nasty stuff" that they're sitting on, it's making unfair attacks with the excuse that "the Republicans will do much worse in the Fall." Either way, the actions of the Clinton campaign repeatedly call to mind the old saying, "With friends like these, who needs enemies?"

    April 7, 2008 at 7:18 pm |
  21. JonRoss

    Just to echo others here, it has nothing to do with Penn. Hillary was destined to fall. If it wasn't Obama performing the coup de grace it would be someone else.

    April 7, 2008 at 7:18 pm |
  22. Michele

    Although I respect Mr.Gergin tremendously, I disagree with his take on Clinton's negativity...I just don't see it...What I do see is a media, including CNN , that is enthralled with Obama and fearful of taking on a very popular black man when he makes a gaffe...While making hay of his pastor's words, very little was said of the "typical white person " comment...Geraldine Ferraro got days of lambasting and Obama's ownwords were dismissed...I don't get it...I'm very offended by him and, somewhat more so by the press that swoons over his every word. ...Clinton is not being negative, she is being defensive

    April 7, 2008 at 7:17 pm |
  23. frank rivas

    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.

    Not only the above statement about strategy is too little, too late; it would have never been followed from the beginning. Clinton has shown her true colors by now: egotistical, selfish, racist and liar without any boundaries. Because she always considered herself the de-facto nominee, her dark, nasty, true self was always there to appear the moment anybody would dare competing with her. The last straw: stating that the conservative nominee is more prepared than her democratic rival in running the country. I have never seen any republican going that nasty, to say the least, againgst a fellow republican like this woman has against her fellow democratic rival. Rove et al are nothing compared to her.

    April 7, 2008 at 7:17 pm |
  24. Judy

    What's hurting Hillary in her campaign is not Mark Penn, no matter what foolish thing he did. It's Bill, and she can't fire him.

    April 7, 2008 at 7:17 pm |
  25. Kent, Illinois

    Mr. Gergen, I too really like when they have you on the show on CNN. I appreciate your honesty as it relates to each candidate. And, though you may favor one over the other, you do not let it show. We are given the facts and your insight from years of your presense in US politics.

    Thank You
    Kent, Illinois

    April 7, 2008 at 7:17 pm |
  26. osaycnuc

    Oh, that's right, you're Clinton-biased and Penn brainwashed. You're still for the "same ole' same ole", huh? more of the distortions, more of the hypocrisy, more of the behind-closed-doors-dealings. more of the cover-ups.

    I'll just file your article away with the heart-wrenching story of an uninsured pregnant woman getting hit by sniper fire in Ohio while trying to find someone to give her and her fetus health care but being turned away because she didn't make $20 million in 2007. Oh, wait, maybe that's not exactly what happened.

    April 7, 2008 at 7:16 pm |
  27. Jey

    Penn was not fired. This is a demotion – Look closer, he's still there on the payroll. His title is the only that has changed. Now it's just Senior Strategist instead of Chief Strategist.

    The Clinton's needed a smoke screen to change Monday morning headlines from the $109 million dollars in questionable revenues that the Clintons made reported on their taxes. They want the middle class to think that they understand their working poor pain. Couple that with some other questionable business deals/partners listed on their tax returns and the lies she told about her foriegn policy experience in Tuzla and add two parts diversion.

    The Penn demotion has accomplished that – for now.

    April 7, 2008 at 7:16 pm |
  28. Narayan

    Kitchen sink did not work.
    Toilet bowl will not work.
    It will only take Clintons down that way.

    Now I am afraid, HRC will lose her senate seat next time.

    April 7, 2008 at 7:13 pm |
  29. Linda, Fl

    Well. Ae You trying to tell, that she was manipulated?

    Then how anyone can even think, that so easy-manipulated person should pretend to be a president?

    Also : 2 major figures from the campaign were gone during 4 months.
    She can NOT manage!
    NO skills.
    She can NOT manage this campaign, how can she pretend to rule the country?
    What is this all about?
    She is disqualified.
    And no question about it.
    With penn or without – she just can NOT make it – to manage.
    (remember – she never did!)

    April 7, 2008 at 7:12 pm |
  30. Diane Gardner

    The Clintons' elastic relationship with the truth has been a consistent shared behavior between them since Bill entered politics. Whether these two are knowledgeable, compassionate or deserving (or not), what they say just always needs to be vetted. Couple this with their all-consuming sense of personal entitlement, and I think they're pretty frightening. I don't care if Obama or McCain wins; either would be better than the guaranteed-destructive and unerringly untruthful Billary.

    April 7, 2008 at 7:10 pm |
  31. Ken

    Mark Penn is not gone. He is still a consultant to the clinton campaign. I think he knew he should not have done what he did but like many in positions of authority, he felt he could do what he wanted to do. Well as Senator Obama is calling for "CHANGE", here is a sign that it is coming. Mark Penn thought he could get away with it and he did not but then to show the same old Washington thought process, she is still keeping him around as a consultant. I think here in the south we call it "HAVING YOUR CAKE AND EATING IT TOO".


    April 7, 2008 at 7:09 pm |
  32. Ian

    Seems to be yet another opportunity for Clinton to recreate herself. I have now lost count of the number of strategy changes in her campaign. I tell you one thing, she may easily be the worst choice but the best politician in the race for president

    April 7, 2008 at 7:09 pm |
  33. Jamil - Dearborn, MI

    There is a BIG difference between this and the NAFTA case involving an Obama staffer. In the NAFTA case, the staffer involved was a low-level UNPAID staffer NOT the chief strategist of the campaign who has billed the campaign nearly $11 million. Plus, what had actually happened in the Canadian meeting is in dispute whereas here Penn admits to not only telling the Columbians "don't worry" but telling them "don't worry I'll even help you get this trade deal passed!" HUGE DIFFERENCE!!!!!

    April 7, 2008 at 7:04 pm |
  34. Rob from California


    Although Penn might have been the mind behind the "kitchen sink" strategy, you have to admit that you cannot go totally negative on your oponent, yell "shame on you Barack O'bama" on TV, imply he hasn't passed the commandor in chief test and mock the theme and style of his speech just on the advice of your campaign advisor, can you?

    You also need a type of personality that sits well with that type of slimy and no-ethical-limit approach to fighting.

    April 7, 2008 at 7:02 pm |
  35. Joe

    Thank you Mr. Gergen. I find it funny, and the same time pathetic, that every time someone in the media says something decent about Hillary, Obama supporters explode about being bias. Well, I guess that's the type of reaction I would expect from them considering 95% of the media has been fawning over Obama and forcing it down people's throat that Obama is inevitable (NOT). When people hear this 24/7, it starts to stick in the back of their minds' and it's the only reason Obama has had any success at all.

    April 7, 2008 at 7:00 pm |
  36. Bond

    Mistatement, misremember, mismangement of campaign, misappropriations of campaign funds... what elese can you possibly mis? Wow sounds like a great leader and executive to me... Billary is a joke. Get out and go away.

    Scoreboard Obama

    April 7, 2008 at 6:50 pm |
  37. James

    another chief political operative from Hillary's campign bites the dust... Big Surprise... This is the worst-run campaign in the history of politics...

    April 7, 2008 at 6:49 pm |
  38. lesley - Vancouver, BC

    I would imagine Hillary knows where she's going from now on, with or without Penn, In spite of everything and particularly the media being 70% biased against her, she is still almost tied with Obama. People talk as though she's miles behind. The more people know Obama the more they realize he's not a leader, his "conflict" about the Olympic "opening" games boycott by Bush is an example of how he votes "present". Missing the opening would not detract from the athletes but would send a message. Hillary gets it. Vote for her.

    April 7, 2008 at 6:26 pm |
  39. Michael, NC

    Mr Gergen, I love your stuff! I appreciate the honest and 360 degree view you give on every topic you bring to the table.
    I agree. Hillbillary is responsible for what is being portrayed to voters in her campaign. It is not up to Penn to relay her views, that is her job. I have sat on the idea that if the two dem candidates (Hillary esp) would have stuck to their own business and showed their own thoughts instead of trying to demoralize each other, it would be a much tighter race. Now, the dem winner will have a STEEP hill to climb in November, and I don't think either of them will make that climb. Hopefully, as David stated, the release of Penn will bring a more positive run to the forefront of the campaign from here.

    April 7, 2008 at 6:11 pm |
  40. Carol B., Virginia

    Sometimes, the sword is mightier than the pen(n). Does this now mean the candidates will address more of voter's real concerns like the war, economy, healthcare, etc... or continue to fling rumors and see what takes?

    April 7, 2008 at 6:03 pm |
  41. Gil - California

    The reason I am not voting for Hillary has nothing to do with Mark Penn. It is the woman and the man she is married to. Neither of them have shown me one honest regard for the military men and women. I remember the distainful looks she would give the Marine guards in her first days in the White House. The fact that she now is able to pretend to care does not matter and never will. Hillary does not deserve to be my Commander in Chief no matter what she or her line up of retired "officers" may say.

    April 7, 2008 at 6:03 pm |
  42. hrao

    Gergen not being crtical of Hillary ? Will wonders cease?

    April 7, 2008 at 5:58 pm |
  43. Rob - Winnipeg - Canada

    Mr. Gergen – isn't it true that the BHO NAFTA controversy was eventually disputed by the Canadians?
    The Clinton campaign has been a disaster from day 1 – who was the Commander in Chief?
    Who has shown true leadership in running a campaign and what does this say about the candidates?

    April 7, 2008 at 5:52 pm |
  44. D Williams, Miami

    I somewhat agree (save the interpretations that the Obama gaffee was worse... on that opinion I entirely disagree). However, I have often wondered why the Clinton campaign has not saw the power in going positive. It is during those moments when she is focusing on drawing voters to herself rather than away from Obama that she is most powerful. It is my observation that it is during these times that she truly shines and her in depth knowledge of the issues shines through.

    April 7, 2008 at 5:48 pm |
  45. marcy

    Mr. Gergen isn’t the fact that every other week there’s a new direction, and new coach for that direction part of what’s hurting Clinton in this campaign? I mean it’s hard to get behind a candidate when even the people who are suppose to be behind them are not. Does an unstable campaign lead one to think it will be an unstable White House too?

    Mobile, AL

    April 7, 2008 at 5:43 pm |
  46. Kay

    I believe that if Hillary had anything on Obama she would have used it by now. She has been in desperate mode for some time now. I think that it is sad that she feels she has to throw the kitchen sink at him. We are looking for somebody who can bring the country together, not someone who is successful at driving a wedge between people.

    April 7, 2008 at 5:35 pm |
  47. Kristy

    I agree somewhat, if Clinton would have stayed more positive, then she would probably been closer if not ahead of obama right now. it is sad, but on the same token, she is in charge of her campaign and to quote all of her tv/radio adds "i'm Hillary Clinton and I approve this message" She always has the final say. she did not have to authorize any thing. So you can't blame that on just Penn, she has to take some responsibility in that as well.

    April 7, 2008 at 5:23 pm |
  48. Kent, Illinois

    Penn is not the reason for Hillary's downfall in this campaign. Us regular joe's don't even know who he is. Hillary is the reason for Hillary's downfall. Negative breeds negative. You cannot cannot expect anything different.

    April 7, 2008 at 5:10 pm |
  49. Cindy

    I think that Clinton and the rest of them personally wanted Mark out and they were looking for any good reason to let him go. Boy did he give them one!!

    If he has been leading her so far he hasn't done that great of a job her approval ratings and her lead over Obama in Pennsylvania have slipped considerably! It was about time she got rid of him. But I think it may be a little too late. She should have gotten rid of him when her campaign first started having major problems. I don't think she can make up any points now!

    Cynthia, Covington, Ga.

    April 7, 2008 at 5:08 pm |
  50. April in Texas

    He isnt totally gone hes basically just demoted.

    April 7, 2008 at 5:06 pm |
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