Dispatch August 2008

Who Says Penn is Finished?

He could be back sooner than you think
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One of the fun things about writing a controversial piece like the one we posted yesterday on the collapse of the Clinton campaign is the ensuing flurry of ungrounded pronouncements about this or that major character. If you watch cable or read liberal blogs, you’ve no doubt gotten the impression that former Clinton chief strategist Mark Penn is finished in politics, owing largely to this memo suggesting that Clinton target what he calls Obama’s “lack of American roots.” Not only do I suspect these commentators are jumping to premature conclusions, but one obvious scenario could bring Penn back rather quickly—and right into the middle of Obama’s campaign.

For years, Penn and his wife, Nancy Jacobson, have been close advisers to Indiana Senator Evan Bayh. Jacobson put together Bayh’s finance team during his aborted presidential bid, and previously served as national finance chair for the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC). Penn was the DLC’s longtime pollster and worked for Bayh during his last Senate race. The couple has also been associated with Third Way, the centrist think tank Bayh helped organize in 2005 that many in Washington viewed as a vehicle for his presidential run (the DLC obviously belonging to Clinton).

Bayh gets major play in today’s New York Times for being on, and possibly even atop, Obama’s vice-presidential short list. He has many attractive qualifications. But in choosing Bayh, Obama would be pairing himself with someone awfully close to Mark Penn. Would it bother Obama’s people to have Penn whispering in their vice president’s ear? The official answer, conveyed by Obama spokesman Tommy Vietor, is “We aren’t commenting on the VP selection process.” The unofficial answer is, “You bet it would!”

That may or may not be sufficient cause to scotch Bayh’s VP prospects. But if it isn’t, Penn is right back in the presidential race—if not in an official capacity, then certainly in a functional one. “Bayh is the one guy who could get Penn back in the mix,” a Democratic pollster told me today. “One guy” isn’t much. But it’s a long way from “finished.”

Joshua Green is an Atlantic senior editor.
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Joshua Green is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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