Editor’ s Note: This is an excerpt of a longer article about Hillary Clinton’s circle of advisers, which will appear May 16 in the print version of The Nation.
As Hillary Clinton charges toward the Democratic nomination for President, her campaign has a coterie of influential advisers. There’s her husband, of course, widely regarded as one of the sharpest political strategists in the business. There’s über-Washington insider and former head of the Democratic National Committee Terry McAuliffe. There are A-list policy wonks like former Treasury Secretary Bob Rubin. But perhaps the most important figure in the campaign is her pollster and chief strategist, Mark Penn, a combative workaholic. Penn is not yet a household name, but perhaps he should be. Inside Hillaryland, he has elaborately managed the centrist image Hillary has cultivated in the Senate. The campaign is polling constantly, and Penn’s interpretation of the numbers will in large part decide her political direction.
Yet Penn is no ordinary pollster. Beyond his connections to the Clintons, he not only polls for America’s biggest companies but also runs one of the world’s premier PR agencies. This creates a dilemma for Hillary: Penn represents many of the interests whose influence candidate Clinton–in an attempt to appeal to an increasingly populist Democratic electorate–has vowed to curtail. Is what’s good for Penn and his business good for Hillary’s political career? And furthermore, can she convincingly claim to fight for the average American with Penn guiding strategy in her corner?
Despite the risks he poses, it’s easy to figure out why Hillary clings to Penn. The Clintons (like the Bushes) put a premium on loyalty, and they credit Penn with saving Bill’s presidency. After the 1994 election, Democrats had just lost both houses of Congress and Clinton was floundering in the polls. At the urging of his wife, Bill turned to Dick Morris, a controversial friend from their time in Arkansas. Morris knew Penn from his days as a pollster in New York and brought him into the White House. Morris decided what to poll and Penn polled it. They immediately pushed Clinton to the right, enacting the now-infamous strategy of “triangulation,” which co-opted Republican policies like welfare reform and tax cuts and emphasized small-bore issues that supposedly cut across the ideological divide. “They were the ones who said ‘Make the ’96 election about nothing except V-Chips and school uniforms,'” says a former Clinton adviser. When Morris got caught with a call girl, Penn became the most important adviser in Clinton’s second term. “In a White House where polling is virtually a religion,” the Washington Post reported in 1996, “Penn is the high priest.” He became known as the “most powerful man in Washington you’ve never heard of.”
Penn, who had previously worked in the business world for companies like Texaco and Eli Lilly, brought his corporate ideology to the White House. After moving to Washington he aggressively expanded his polling firm, Penn, Schoen & Berland (PSB). It was said that Penn was the only person who could get Bill Clinton and Bill Gates on the same phone line. Penn’s largest client was Microsoft, and he saw no contradiction between working for both the plaintiff and the defense in what was at the time the country’s largest antitrust case. A variety of controversial clients enlisted PSB. The firm defended Procter and Gamble’s Olestra from charges that it caused anal leakage, blamed Texaco’s bankruptcy on greedy jurors and market-tested genetically modified foods for Monsanto. Penn invented the concept of “inoculation,” in which corporations are shielded from scandal through clever advertising and marketing. Selling an image, companies realized, was as important as winning a legislative favor.