The Penn Factor

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It seemed to me that Hillary Clinton's ability to finally blunt Barack Obama's momentum somewhere in the Ohio and Texas primaries meant that maybe Mark Penn isn't quite as inept as he seemed. Now comes a weird Washington Post story about how Clinton staffers first celebrated their wins "And then Clinton's advisers turned to their other goal: denying Mark Penn credit." Peter Baker and Ann Kornblut further report:

The depth of hostility toward Penn even in a time of triumph illustrates the combustible environment within the Clinton campaign, an operation where internal strife and warring camps have undercut a candidate once seemingly destined for the Democratic nomination. Clinton now faces the challenge of exploiting this moment of opportunity while at the same time deciding whether the squabbling at her Arlington headquarters has become a distraction that requires her intervention.

It seems to me that the depth of hostility to Penn also illustrates something else -- the depth of Bill and Hillary Clinton's personal and professional allegiance to Mark Penn. He masterminded their re-election campaign in 1996, he was put in charge of steering Hillary Clinton into a New York Senate seat in 2000, they stood by him during 2001 when he was trashing Al Gore and economic populism to everyone who could hear, eagerly snapped him up to be the maestro of the 2008 election, and even though everyone on earth -- including her own staff and supporters -- wants her to ditch this guy, she won't do it. Because Penn's style of political skittishness is, fundamentally, what she and her husband think the lessons of the past few decades support. The strength of Barack Obama's campaign has forced her to shift to the left, but you can always tell that her campaign's at its most comfortable attacking from the right -- altering photographs of Obama, calling diplomacy "naive," getting "tough" on Iran, warning that terrorists will devour your children unless you elect the longest-serving Washington hack available, singing John McCain's praises, etc.

The people working for Clinton who don't like Penn, don't like the idea of a Penn-run campaign, and don't like the idea of a Penn-run administration, all have a simple option available to them -- stop working to elect Mark Penn's candidate.

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Matthew Yglesias is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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