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.
Ah, the mysterious and arcane ways of campaign consultants.
Every campaign strategist in a major race tries to stretch the envelope in thinking about how to maximize his or her candidate's strengths and how to capitalize on the weaknesses of the opponent. Not to do so is political malpractice.
But my basic rule of thumb is: Don't put it on paper (or, in this day and age, don't e-mail it, post it or leave it hanging around in a Word document). I have had numerous clients who insisted that I write an elaborate "campaign plan," laying out in exquisite detail the ingenious ways in which I intended to carry them to victory. In every case I have declined to do so, because such documents are just begging to be leaked and twisted.