A lot of negative things have been written in the blogosphere about pollster Mark Penn, Hillary Clinton's increasingly-powerful advisor. Penn's critics have focused on his firm's union-busting work. They've also attacked his insistence on promoting a strategy of so-called "centrism," even as supposedly "centrist" policy positions - especially regarding Iraq - become increasingly unpopular. And now we learn that the PR firm he runs, Burson-Marsteller, has been hired to repair Blackwater's reputation.
Which raises a question: If they're so good at PR, how did Burson-Marsteller manage to make themselves such a potential public relations disaster for their most famous client? After all, the firm helps "drive strong corporate and brand reputations for its clients," according to its corporate webpage. What will this link with out-of-control mercenaries do for Sen. Clinton's "brand reputation?"
While I haven't hesitated to criticize the Clinton campaign or its advisors, I've deliberately refrained from commenting on Mark Penn for a couple of reasons. For one thing, I work in the corporate world too. We're a capitalist society, and if a person chooses to function in that world the lines aren't quite as black-and-white as they may seem from the outside. (Although union-busting is, or should be, beyond the pale - especially for someone with a leadership role in a campaign that seeks union support.)
For another, I'm not prepared to heap the kind of scorn on Penn that others do (although Kos' impaling of him yesterday is pretty much the definitive blog commentary on Penn's shortcomings). I haven't read "Microtrends," Penn's new book. But Ezra Klein has, and his piece on it and Penn may be the definitive print takedown of the pollster.
Yet another reason I've stayed away from commenting on Penn is that Sen. Clinton seems committed to working with him - and, despite all evidence to the contrary, I suppose I keep clinging to the tattered hope that she develop into a candidate worth supporting in 2008. Some of us haven't completely given up on her yet ... but time is growing short.
Now we have the news that Burson-Marsteller, under Penn's leadership, has taken on Blackwater as a client. Blackwater has become a symbol for everything that's wrong with the incumbent Administration, from the greedy and irresponsible outsourcing of governmental functions to Pentagon-sanctioned atrocities like the shooting of an Iraqi politician's bodyguard by a drunken mercenary operating beyond the law.
Ezra Klein quotes Penn's partner and others as saying that he's driven by "the numbers," and only by the numbers. Yet numbers can only be understood in context - and political contexts include the social, the perceptual ... and the ethical. Taking on Blackwater shows a blindness toward context.
Mel Brooks said this about Hitler in a 1966 Playboy interview:
"There was a whole nice side of Hitler. He was a good dancer - no one knows that. He loved a parakeet named Bob - no one knows that either."
Here's some professional advice for Burson-Marsteller. The best you can do for your new client is to try an approach like that for your client (although Brooks, of course, was joking).
This latest revelation about Penn and his firm doesn't seem to have hit the mainstream media, at least so far. But it doesn't have to get wide press in order to do lasting damage to her campaign, especially during the primaries. That's something we're about to address in our next post - one that will presumably meet with Mr. Penn's approval, since it will be driven by "the numbers."
We're being told that Sen. Clinton and her staff combine "experience" and management savvy with the ability and desire to create "change." This example of poor judgment casts doubts on both claims. It's not smart management, and it certainly doesn't make her look like the candidate of "change."
As for Burson-Marsteller, the best thing it can do for its new client is to buy it a parakeet named "Bob."