The architect of Hillary Clinton’s first presidential campaign, Mark Penn, is no longer on the Clintons’ payroll, but he says he “could not have been happier” about how she did in Tuesday’s Democratic debate.
After months of watching the Clinton campaign flailing around trying to make the candidate warm and fuzzy, having her tell more jokes and stories, they returned to what Penn calls the “Margaret Thatcher model” of leadership. That’s the kind of strength the Reagan-era British prime minister projected, and it’s what Penn is convinced can win Clinton the presidency.
He advised Clinton’s campaign for the U.S. Senate in 2000, when nobody believed she would win as a first lady from Arkansas carpet-bagging in New York. He recalls that effort as a mini-presidential campaign, beginning with Clinton’s now signature “listening tour” and culminating in her winning debate performances. When her ’08 presidential effort ended in defeat and a sea of recriminations, Penn got much of the blame, and he hasn’t said much publicly about politics in the intervening years.
But now he’s come in from the cold, at least sort of. The private equity firm he oversees, the Stagwell Group, has purchased SKDKnickerbocker, a consulting firm that is synonymous with Democratic Party politics. In an interview with The Daily Beast on Thursday, Penn said he’ll be giving advice on how to grow the business but will still be watching his former client from the sidelines. “I’m on good terms with both of them,” he said, referring to the Clintons. “But I am not advising the campaign.”
He waited until after Tuesday’s debate to talk about the campaign because he thought the criticism of Clinton had gotten “out of sync with reality.” After months of seeing television clips of her under stress, at Chipotle, or answering questions on emails, he said the debate gave Clinton an opportunity to be seen unfiltered, and “as the leader she is.” While she has tacked left on key issues, like trade and the environment, he credits her with standing firm on a no-fly zone for Syria, refusing to reinstate Glass-Steagall in a nod to Wall Street, and pushing back on capitalism and the strength of the American economic system. “The Hillary who won the debate took a lot of the best of ’08 and combined it with some of the best new issues of ’16,” he said.
As the pollster most identified with the Democratic Party’s move to the center, which progressives now denounce as “Clintonism,” Penn is remarkably sanguine, crediting Clinton with talking about the new issues of the time, income inequality and wage stagnation. But despite her debate performance, he doesn’t think she has “broken through” in the same way Bernie Sanders has with his clear message, or even how Donald Trump has on immigration. “I think Hillary would agree she has not yet broken through on what her signature issue would be in the White House, and that’s what she’s got to work on,” Penn said. “It will absolutely have to be economic.”
Sanders won all the online and focus groups, which Penn attributes to the Vermont senator’s remark that the American people are “sick and tired” of hearing about Clinton’s emails. “It was an act of political self-sacrifice,” Penn said, giving Clinton’s campaign a boost and boosting Sanders, too, showing him as a team player and a different kind of politician. “It violated the rule when an opponent has a problem, you just stand aside.”
Penn pointed out this is the longest period of national pessimism in recorded polling history. “A kid who is 18 today never really knew a period in his or her life when people were positive about the country, and that’s never happened before,” he said. People are sour on government, on business, on foreign entanglements, and on politics, he said. “Obama offered a tremendous amount of hope in ’08, and America once again wants a message of hope…Republicans can’t go into the election talking about Planned Parenthood any more than Democrats are going to win a lot of votes talking about campaign finance.”
In the ’08 campaign, Clinton’s message was that of a fighter, while Obama ran as a conciliator who could bring the country together. After eight years of getting him being rebuffed by the other party, now Democrats are looking for more of a fighter. “Only someone who can stand up to the Republicans can make a deal with them,” said Penn. He doesn’t want to re-litigate the ’08 campaign and its shortcomings, but he noted that Clinton won more delegates in the primary states; she lost in the caucus states mainly because of her campaign’s reliance on a “big state strategy” and a failure to organize in the caucus states, a mistake she’s not making this time.
Another key difference between then and now is Clinton’s comfort level with the historic nature of her candidacy. Although Penn said the campaign’s internal research showed “there was never anything contradictory between being what we called in ’08 the FWP [first woman president] and a strong leader,” the campaign didn’t capitalize on that until it was too late. “My view is that she should be Margaret Thatcher,” he said. Projecting Thatcher-esque strength is the right role model for girls and women, he added, and will also win back some of the men she has been losing in recent months because of the campaign’s emphasis on warmth and likability.
A tough campaign lies ahead, and Penn made one prediction: If Trump is the Republican nominee, Clinton will win in a 49-state landslide. “I don’t personally think Trump can survive having to get voters beyond a sliver,” he said, “but on the other hand the proposition has never been tested.” Neither, of course, has the FWP. This time Penn won’t be at the center of the campaign, but the emails released from Clinton’s personal server include enough back-and-forth over the years to show he is still part of the extended Clinton family, and can get through to sound the alarm when he wants.