posted by John Riley
If the Mark Penn story wasn't mostly inside baseball, it would be a pretty big mess at this point.
Sunday, the Clinton campaign announced that Penn was giving up his job as chief strategist for the campaign, because Hillary opposes a trade deal with Colombia while Penn was working for Colombia on the same deal, meeting with the ambassador last week to strategize on how to get the deal passed in his capacity as chairman of Burson-Marsteller.
Already fired by Colombia over the conflict, the Clinton release said he had decided to step down from his campaign post, but sources said he had been pushed. And it made sense -- because the strategy devised by Hillary and Penn hasn't exactly worked well, and having a political aide who was trying to get a deal passed with an anti-union regime didn't seem like a great way to secure blue-collar votes in Pennsylvania.
In 24 hours, however, two things complicate the narrative:
First, a report that in fact -- announcement notwithstanding -- Penn continues to serve as a "key" campaign staffer, participating today in daily message calls and debate preparation calls. From Atlantic political correspondent Marc Ambinder: "Mr. Penn 'is still going to be very much involved,' a senior campaign official said."
And, later, a report in Politico that one of Penn's replacements -- Hillary spokesman Howard Wolfson -- retains an equity interest in the Glover Park Group, a DC PR firm that "signed a $40,000 per month contract with the government of Colombia in April of 2007 to promote the very agreement that Clinton now rails against on the presidential campaign trail." His interest is valued at $500,000 to $1 million.
There's nothing wrong with that. DC operatives have to make their money. It's hardly news that they're a mercenary class, not always true believers. It's kind of understood that if you're going to be a player, you're going to have some smelly involvements. And, arguably, passively benefiting from work for Colombia is different from actively advocating for it. But, combined with Penn's continued important role at the campaign, it raises questions about the real reasons behind his public demotion.
Apparently, Clinton doesn't feel any deep discomfort with aides making money off of advocacy for a Colombian trade deal while, in Hillary's words today, "violence against trade unionists continues and the perpetrators are not brought to justice." She isn't taking a stand against conflicts between her positions and her advisors' clients. There's no principle here.
Instead, the whole demotion seems to have been completely for appearances sake -- it was embarrassing that Penn was doing it so openly, on an issue moving to the front burner, and got caught. Or, maybe Colombia had nothing to do with it. Maybe it was just an excuse for demoting Penn because the Clintons think it's time to try out some new strategies.
John Riley writes for Spin Cycle, Newsday's political blog