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Don’t Look At Me, I Didn’t Do It!

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Mark Penn washes his hands having helped to seal Clinton’s fate. (Penn’s column is also available in video form.)

The thing is that there’s actually considerable merit to Penn’s argument that money and organizational issues were the key defects of the Clinton campaign; their inability and/or unwillingness to compete in February primaries and caucuses was far more important than any “message” problems that could have been solved by shifts in campaign tactics. To the extent that message mattered, it was the substantive errors — Clinton getting the most important issue of the Bush era disastrously wrong, digging herself in deeper, and then compounding the error by voting for Kyl-Lieberman — that couldn’t easily be corrected after Obama won Iowa.

But this doesn’t really exculpate Penn. One way for the Clinton campaign to have freed up funds to create some organizational capacity in small caucus states would have been to not pay Penn’s firm millions of dollars for consulting services that Penn implicitly concedes to have been virtually worthless. If Penn is right about Clinton’s campaign, he must be wrong about the value of his “message” advice. Similarly, structural factors matter more than campiagn tactics in presidential elections — which is precisely why it was wrong for the Clintons to think that Penn was some sort of genius for helping a relatively popular incumbent in a booming ecomony win re-election. If Penn is largely right about the reasons for Clinton’s defeat, people are idiots to pay him what he charges for his services; he seems to be admitting the truth about the consultant racket in the Democratic Party.

So either Penn is wrong to evade responsibility like this, or he’s grossly overpaid. There’s no third option.

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