by Michael Hawley | Mark Penn’s departure is an indication of Hillary’s desperation.
On April 6, Mark Penn, the longtime Clinton advisor, stepped down from his position as chief political strategist for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. Abrasive and arrogant, Penn had already accumulated many enemies within the Democratic Party and even inside the Clinton campaign itself. But the Karl Rove of Democratic politics did not fall from grace because of his personality. Officially, Penn’s firm’s lobbying on behalf of the Colombia Free Trade Agreement, which Clinton herself has publicly opposed, was the justification for Penn’s resignation. However, it seems unlikely that the man responsible for the Clinton duo’s most decisive victories could be felled by a minor conflict-of-interest scandal. Rather, it seems Penn’s departure indicates the desperation of the Clinton campaign.
Mark Penn made a name for himself in national politics after he helped engineer Bill Clinton’s reelection in 1996. He proved himself indispensable to the Clintons after steering them successfully through the Monica Lewinski ordeal and the series of minor scandals that plagued the pair immediately after their departure from the White House. Penn also masterminded Hillary Clinton’s election to the US Senate. In short, Penn and the Clintons have a long history of successful partnership. Many insiders have suggested that Penn is one of the few people the Clintons really trust. Thus it came as something of a surprise when Penn announced that he would be stepping down from the helm of Clinton’s floundering campaign.
Though many have accepted the premise that Penn’s lobbying on behalf of the Free Trade Agreement posed too great an inconsistency for the Clinton campaign to overcome, it might be better argued that Hillary Clinton’s own position is the truly inconsistent one. After all, Bill Clinton made free trade a cornerstone of his presidency and negotiated NAFTA. Widely accepted economic theory demonstrates that the net effect of free trade is good for all countries involved. Currently, there are no tariffs on Colombian exports to America. But, American goods face tariffs of 35% or higher in Colombia. An estimated 9,000 American firms do business in Colombia, more than 80% of which are medium-sized and small businesses.
The Colombian Free Trade agreement would eliminate tariffs on American goods and substantially increase American trade with Colombia, an effect that would be especially helpful in this time of economic sloth. It would also allow cheaper products to enter the US, greatly benefiting the American consumer. Moreover, this agreement would help Colombia, our staunchest ally in South America, a country that has aided us in the wars against drugs and terrorism. President Alvaro Uribe’s Colombian government has also been an important counterbalance to the anti-American socialist regimes in Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua.
Thus, Clinton’s opposition to the treaty not only indicates a departure from the legacy of her husband’s presidency, but also from common sense. After all, there is little reason to oppose a treaty between America and Colombia that is good for both America and Colombia.
But the treaty is not well-received in Pennsylvania. Clinton, once the “inevitable” candidate, is now behind Barack Obama in the popular vote, the national polls, and in pledged delegates for the Democratic convention. Hillary has pinned her hopes on a resounding victory in Pennsylvania’s upcoming primary. Pennsylvania’s Democratic, blue-collar voters are fiercely protectionist and look unkindly on free trade. Fearing the loss of their jobs to cheaper unskilled labor abroad, these voters have long opposed the rapid rise of globalization.
While campaigning in Pennsylvania and neighboring Ohio, both Obama and Clinton have tried to outdo the other in their denunciations of NAFTA and the Colombia deal. Clinton has seen her poll numbers slip recently as her fictitious Bosnia story was exposed as false and her cash inflow has faltered. With Bill’s legacy of free trade expansion, Hillary cannot risk the chance that Pennsylvania voters will see Mark Penn’s lobbying and her own dishonest reputation as evidence that she is not wholeheartedly committed to protecting their interests.
Examined in the context of Clinton’s Pennsylvania strategy, Penn’s departure seems clearer. By firing her most trusted advisor, Clinton can now convincingly claim that she puts protecting Pennsylvanians’ jobs high atop her list of priorities. Time will tell if her gamble will pay off. Poll numbers show her lead over Obama narrowing to single digits. Perhaps this move will shore up some of her wavering support in the key battleground state. However, it remains unclear whether Clinton truly intends to hold to her promise of opposition to the deal. If she gains the opportunity of running as the Democratic nominee, she would need to address the concerns of the entire country, not just Pennsylvania. Thus, we may yet see the return of Mark Penn after the conclusion of the primary fight.
Mr. Hawley is a freshman who has not yet declared a major.