Is Hillary Clinton's Problem Mark Penn?

Last October Mark Penn made a visit to firedoglake, my blog, promoting his book Microtrends. At the time I was pretty stunned that as the political pollster and strategist for the Democratic frontrunner, his book's index listed only one entry for "Iraq," which was one less than the number of entries for Angelina Jolie.

The back cover of the book proudly boasts a quote from the New York Times saying that Penn's ideas "helped transform the Clinton presidency into a service provider for various niche voters," so it was curious to me that Penn would consciously neglect the biggest political niche of all: exit polls in Iowa say 34.9% of Democratic caucus goers identified the war as their most important issue. Penn's editorial choices indicated an overt strategy of avoiding the controversial.

I asked him about it in the comments, and Penn... avoided the question.

Following Clinton's drubbing in Iowa, people inside the campaign are questioning the effectiveness of Penn's guidance:

[N]o sooner had Mrs. Clinton finished her concession speech in Iowa on Thursday than second-guessing set in among her supporters.

One longtime adviser complained that the campaign's senior strategist, Mark Penn, realized too late that "change" was a much more powerful message than "experience." Another adviser said Mr. Penn and Mr. Clinton were consumed with polling data for so long, they did not fully grasp the personality deficit that Mrs. Clinton had with voters.

Bill Clinton had the charisma to run a campaign based on polling that he could then go out and sell to an audience with both charm and passion that made it seem sanguine. Barack Obama has the ability to do much the same. By comparison, when I saw Hillary in Iowa she came off as studied and cautious. Obama's supporters don't seem to be focused on the details of his policies -- they are convinced that he's a man of strong character who has the judgment and the persuasive abilities to do the right thing, and convince others to follow him. Hillary's ability to hit all her marks, make no mistakes, run a "perfect campaign" and engage in wonkish policy arguments with a Penn-like avoidance of controversy seems rather bloodless by comparison.

Roger Simon observes, quite rightly, that Clinton did nothing "wrong" in Iowa. She didn't suffer from poor field staff, and she spent plenty of time and money there. She can't take the "lessons from Iowa" and retool her operation for New Hampshire given all the wind at Obama's back. She can't play an incremental game when she needs a Hail Mary pass.

He also wonders if her current problems come from the campaign's organizational structure:

There is a risk, by the way, in having your pollster also be your top strategist: There is a natural tendency for someone who holds both positions to say the strategy can't be wrong because the polling can't be wrong.

And sometimes you need a strategist who is willing to say, "I don't care what the damn polling says, we need to try something different."

Clinton may very well have to go negative on Obama to survive, but she risks compounding her own negatives in the process. Her decision to run at him from the right, as Matt Stoller says, is just ridiculous. Who's going to back her up in asserting that Obama is too liberal? Because really, he isn't. That just sounds desperate.

Clinton is now trying to chase Obama"s young voters. Not going to happen. She's also trying to fear monger about the dangers of irresponsibly withdrawing from Iraq, saying that we don't want the kind of power transition that happened from Blair to Brown, which is so wrong-headed as to be laughable. I'm no pollster but I sat in several of the Iowa caucuses, and much of the anger directed at Clinton -- which fueled many of Obama's supporters -- was a function of anti-war sentiment. They blame her for getting us into Iraq, and don't think she'd do enough to get us out. This kind of absurd, carefully parsed claptrap just compounds her problems.

Clinton needs to do something dramatic. She needs to give people a reason to believe in her, show that she's not just an overly scripted politician who will never do anything that's isn't "safe."

An excellent way to do that would be to leave the campaign trail and go back to Washington with Chris Dodd to filibuster retroactive immunity for the telecoms. The message that "nobody should be above the law," that she'll fight for accountability and won't be held hostage by big money interests would be a powerful one. She'd certainly grab all the media attention by doing so, and force Obama to either follow her lead or stay behind on the campaign trail while she goes to Washington and fights for the constitution -- neither of which have good optics.

It would be decidedly un-Penn like, unsafe and virtually impossible to poll. But it might be just the kind of shaking up that her campaign -- and the race as a whole -- would benefit from.

Jane Hamsher blogs at