Race-Baiting: An Investigative Assessment of its role in the 2008 Democratic Primary

There has clearly been a lot of talk about race during this campaign - and, unfortunately a lot of talk about race-baiting. The common meme is that the Clinton campaign has started going negative and is using race to do so. But is that the case? Have the Clintons been playing the race card?

There have been many charges against Sen. Clinton, her husband, and members of her campaign. Several members of Clinton's campaign staff have resigned due to (purportedly) race-based controversies and the issue has become so central to the Democratic primary campaign that, when a charge of "racism" was leveled at the Obama campaign (through his association with Rev. Jeremiah Wright), Sen. Obama canceled his TV news appearances to prep for a hasty address on "race and unity".

I'll tackle these two questions together, following a "scorecard" method we can assess at the end. I've come up with a baker's dozen of "race-baiting" stories and will try to determine what was actually said, how the story was spun, and who did the spinning. I'm allotting each story two or four points (which can be divvied up), depending on the impact of the story. As I type this, I'm not sure what the scorecard may look like at the end - and I may disprove my own assumptions. :unsure: Then again, I've been monitoring the coverage of the "race-baiting" fairly closely all along, so I'm doubting that I'll surprise myself much...

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Mark Penn gets the Clinton campaign into "another fine mess"

Clinton aide says Obama can't win. The fact is that the Clinton aide, Mark Penn, cannot win. Unfortunately for Penn, he will be remembered as the person who made repeated miscalculations in a campaign that should have resulted in Hillary Clinton breezing to the 2008 Democratic nomination. Since the beginning of this campaign it was obvious something was wrong. The tone was wrong. The strategy was wrong. I now can conclude what was wrong in two words: Mark Penn.

The two campaigns had two different type of strategists: Mark Penn, the pollster, worked for Hillary Clinton. David Axelrod, the ad man, worked for Obama.

Mark Penn had been considered for a spot in the Al Gore campaign in 2000 but eventually Al Gore took a pass. Here is how the Washington Post reported that event.

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Andrew Sullivan Nails it Again

Mark Penn has commented more than once that Barack Obama can't win the general election. He's even made the ludicrous statement that if he can't beat Hillary in the Pennsylvania primary, that will prove he can't win Pennsylvania in November. This in spite of the fact that, while Obama trails Hillary head-to-head in their primary, he is polling better than Hillary head-to-head vs. McCain.

From Andrew Sullivan, responding to Penn's comment: "The Clintons sink even lower. And it is, of course, a self-fulfilling prophecy. In their dreams. Increasingly, the only rationale I can think of for the way the Clintons are now campaigning is that they are running for 2012. They want McCain to win, if they can't. Why else be this self-destructive?"


"I wonder if the Clintons understand what they are doing to people - people who weren't Clinton-haters in the first place, people whose votes they need."

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Penn, Clinton Campaign Simply Wrong About Obama's Electability

The Clinton campaign is really grasping at straws these days.

On the Clinton call earlier, Mark Penn said, "We believe that [the Pennsylvania primary result] will show that Hillary is ready to win, and that Sen. Obama really can't win the general election."

He later revised it to say that losing Pennsylvania would raise question about Obama's ability to win.

But it's a pretty strong thing to say.

If this charge were not so absurd on its face it would merit a long-winded takedown, here and elsewhere. However, in short I'd point readers to a couple of things: One, state-by-state polling showing Barack Obama to be at least as strong a competitor to John McCain as Hillary Clinton, as well as national polling that quite consistently shows Obama either leading McCain or tied with him (and running at least as well as Clinton against McCain); and two, the analysis of non-partisan election tracker Marc Ambinder, who doesn't have a dog in this race and generally calls these things fairly and evenly.

Of course Obama can win the general election; it's illogical to generalize from the vote totals alone, as I and others have pointed out. Yes, Obama's Gary Hart-Jesse Jackson coalition is untested in modern general elections, but we live in hyperpartisan times, Democrats have an enormous partisan identification identification advantage, and Democrats are much more enthusiastic about their candidate than Republicans are. There's just no way to justify Penn's assertion from reading a poll.

With this in mind, the most sensible conclusion I seem to be able to infer from Penn's statements are that after the Clinton campaign gets done with Obama he won't be able to win a national election -- in other words a promise from the Clinton campaign to make Obama unelectable.

Don't get me wrong, there is definitely room for the two campaigns to hit one another on legitimate bones of contention or to make the case that their candidate is relatively stronger. And both candidates should be and need to be scrutinized so that the Democrats can put their best foot forward in November. But when a campaign begins lashing out senselessly, as appears to be the case in this instance, it simply must be put to a stop -- for the good of the party and for the good of the nation, which cannot afford to go through the third Bush term with a McCain presidency.

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Is Mark Penn Purposefully Undermining Democrats in 2008

We all know that Mark Penn is Hillary Clinton's top strategist. Penn also happens to be the CEO of the company that is representing John McCain, Burson-Marsteller. If Clinton won the Democratic nomination, Penn wins too. If Clinton loses the presidential election to McCain, no matter. Penn's company would win in that scenario too.  

This obvious conflict of interest explains a large number of questionable attacks on Barack Obama. Penn's "Southern Strategy" against Obama (the process of doctoring photos to make Obama's skin and face appear "blacker") and Penn having Clinton claim that McCain is more ready than Obama to keep America safe are just two examples.  

Clinton's scorched-earth campaign has one other effect -- it's dividing Democrats and causing progressives to consider abandoning her campaign in the general election. If that happened, McCain would benefit, and in the end that may be the goal. Penn's company has historically supported Republican politicians and policies, and any real reform-minded Democrat is a threat:

Burson-Marsteller is hardly a natural fit for a prominent Democrat. The firm has represented everyone from the Argentine military junta to Union Carbide after the 1984 Bhopal disaster in India, in which thousands were killed when toxic fumes were released by one of its plants, to Royal Dutch Shell, which has been accused of massive human rights violations in Nigeria. B-M pioneered the use of pseudo-grassroots front groups, known as "astroturfing," to wage stealth corporate attacks against environmental and consumer organizations. It set up the National Smokers Alliance on behalf of Philip Morris to fight tobacco regulation in the early 1990s. Its current clients include major players in the finance, pharmaceutical and energy industries. In 2006, with Penn at the helm, the company gave 57 percent of its campaign contributions to Republican candidates.

The same people who are smearing Obama and Howard Dean here on MyDD are the types of people Penn employs to "astroturf" and create phony grassroots support. Ultimately, this favors the Republican candidate, John McCain, and the company that represents him, Burson-Marsteller.

There are some people in the Clinton campaign who recognize the damage Penn is doing, and they want to remove him.

The depth of hostility toward Penn even in a time of triumph illustrates the combustible environment within the Clinton campaign, an operation where internal strife and warring camps have undercut a candidate once seemingly destined for the Democratic nomination. Clinton now faces the challenge of exploiting this moment of opportunity while at the same time deciding whether the squabbling at her Arlington headquarters has become a distraction that requires her intervention.

The bigger issue is whether Penn is actively working to destroy the chance of a Democrat winning the nomination in 2008:

Mark Penn's personal interests would clearly be best served by a Hillary Clinton victory.

A McCain presidency wouldn't be a bad consolation prize, however. It would be far better to have the head of his lobbying be tight with the president than to have a president like Obama who sought to impose new restrictions on his lobbyist operation.

Burson-Marsteller's work is primarily for corporations, ranging from Blackwater to Microsoft to the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority, the sovereign wealth fund of the government of Abu Dhabi that recently purchased a 5% stake in Citigroup.

As Ari Berman's Hillary, Inc. details, there's every reason to be skeptical of Mark Penn's willingness to help Democrats. He's criticized Al Gore for running to far to the left in 2000 and when he was brought into the Clinton's orbit by Dick Morris, he wasn't even a political operative.


As the New York Times has reported, Mark Penn is the leading advocate within the Hillary Clinton campaign for her decision to go nuclear on Barack Obama. Mandy Grunwald, a Democratic political consultant, recommended against the Penn strategy, but Thursday night's debate closing notwithstanding, Grunwald seems to have lost the battle to Penn.

Using "astroturfers" to give the illusion of grassroots support, smearing Obama with lies and a Southern Strategy, and alienating progressive Democrats will only lead to one outcome: a Republican victory for John McCain, and a victory for Penn's company Burson-Marsteller, and a loss for progressive Democrats.

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