POLITICAL consultant Mark Penn came in for a lot of outrage last week when a March 2007 strategy memo for Hillary Rodham Clinton's campaign surfaced. In it, Penn suggested exploiting Barack Obama's "multicultural, diverse" boyhood as a "very strong weakness." According to Penn, Obama's ties to "basic American values and culture are at best limited."
"Astonishing," wrote Joshua Green for Atlantic Online, which published the memo (and other internal campaign documents). But how astonishing? Inside a high-stakes campaign, what's fair game and what works? We asked veteran strategists -- none of them working on the 2008 campaign -- from both sides of the partisan divide.
There are three ugly truths about electoral politics today. The first, and the ugliest of all, is that elections are much more often about the destruction of the opposition than the building of ideas. But it doesn't have to be that way.
In 1994, I was invited to participate in the shaping of the "Contract with America," designed to win a new majority for Republicans in Congress. My most significant contribution was to insist -- successfully -- that the document avoid all criticisms of all political opponents. All of my polling and focus groups screamed the same conclusion: Don't go negative.
Not that negative doesn't work, but in this case, I had to deliver unhappy Republicans and independents in order for the GOP to win big. Those unhappy voters, many of whom had voted for Ross Perot in 1992, told me they emphatically needed a reason to vote for the Republicans, not just a reason to vote against the Democrats -- otherwise, they'd stay home.
Other GOP consultants insisted on a much more partisan "bang the opponent" strategy. And so my efforts to remove the words "Bill Clinton" and "Democrats" from the Contract required the direct intervention of House Republican leader Newt Gingrich, who sent me -- in person -- to the Republican National Committee offices to hand-scrub the overt partisanship out of the document.
Which leads me to the second ugly electoral truth: There is nothing more dangerous than a strategist (or strategists) spurned. Just 10 days before the 1994 GOP landslide, I was condemned by two rival pollsters who said publicly that my "bad advice could cost us the majority." They were afraid to attack Gingrich, so I became the target.
And that, in a backhanded way, illustrates the final ugly truth about electoral politics: The campaign is an accurate reflection of the candidate. Those who leaked Penn's memo (and the rest of the Clinton campaign documents) won't attack Clinton directly. But just as Gingrich was responsible for the successful fortunes of the Contract in 1994, it's Clinton, not her strategists, who deserves the blame for losing the nomination.