Penn out at Team Hillary ... to a degree

Mark Penn has resigned his position of chief strategist for Hillary Clinton’s campaign this evening, ending a close association with the Democratic candidate who expected to win the nomination in a coronation. Penn left under a cloud after the Wall Street Journal pointed out that he had represented Colombia on a free-trade treaty that Hillary opposes. He could just as well have been fired for the fumbling manner in which the campaign has declined from a coronation to a collapse:

Mark Penn, the pollster and senior strategist for Hillary Rodham Clinton’s presidential bid, left the campaign Sunday after it was disclosed he met with representatives of the Colombian government to help promote a free trade agreement Clinton opposes.

“After the events of the last few days, Mark Penn has asked to give up his role as chief strategist of the Clinton Campaign,” campaign manager Maggie Williams said in a statement released Sunday. “Mark, and Penn, Schoen and Berland Associates, Inc. will continue to provide polling and advice to the campaign.”

Communications director Howard Wolfson and pollster Geoff Garin will craft strategy for the campaign going forward, Williams said. ….

The trade deal flap effectively ended an unusually tight relationship between Penn and both Clintons since Penn was recruited to provide polling and strategic advice to Bill Clinton’s re-election campaign in 1996. He went on to craft strategy for the former first lady’s successful 2000 Senate race in New York.

Penn won’t be on the outside looking in, at least not entirely. Penn and his company will continue its role as chief pollster and will still provide analysis and advice. In fact, since Penn had supplied both along with crafting the strategy of the campaign, it left him in control of both the direction and the feedback of that direction for the entire effort. Given Hillary’s unexpected difficulties against Barack Obama, the locked feedback loop should have been challenged weeks ago, if not months ago.

The limited departure of Penn also resolves a more sticky situation for Hillary. Penn’s firm got fired by the Colombian government after Penn apologized for representing its position on the trade agreement, but until then he had found himself in the unusual position of representing both a foreign government and a candidate for the American presidency. That part of the controversy got overlooked in the accusations of hypocrisy over the competing stances on free trade with Colombia, but it did call into question the potential for mischief in having essentially a foreign agent running a presidential campaign.

In the end, though, the big scandal is the $10 million that Penn made from the Hillary campaign while essentially steering it into the shoals. Hillary had expected to win this nomination in a cakewalk, and yet got derailed by a candidate with even less experience in national office than she has. Even a year after his entry into the race, Penn never quite recognized the call for change outweighed the desire for a Clinton Restoration. The millions of dollars Hillary spent on his advice could just as easily been burned for heat.