Media Matters

Penn Pal

Hillary did take her controversial pollster's advice.

By 8.13.08

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The publication of pollster Mark Penn's memos on the Atlantic's website throws considerable light on Hillary Clinton's campaign.

Advising Hillary Clinton to cast her opponent as insufficiently American, Penn wrote in a March 2007 memo that he couldn't "imagine America electing a president during a time of war who is not at his center fundamentally American in his thinking and in his values."

This represents Obama's most significant weakness, wrote Penn. He suggested Hillary emphasize in every speech by contrast that she was "born in the middle of America to the middle class in the middle of the last century. And talk about the basic bargain as about the deeply American values you grew up with, learned as a child and that drive you today. Values of fairness, compassion, responsibility, giving back."

According to the Atlantic, "Clinton wisely chose not to go this route." But actually she did go there. Penn's advice puts many moments of the campaign into perspective.

Surely his advice explains why the Clinton campaign, though pretending it didn't, distributed via the Drudge Report the image of Obama in Muslim garb. And don't Penn's memos explain Hillary's appearance on 60 Minutes in which she hemmed and hawed when asked by Steve Kroft if Obama was Muslim? He is not a Muslim "as far as I know," she hedged.

This pausing had to have been a Penn-inspired doubt-raising tactic, designed to leave Americans with the lingering question: Should we entrust the war on terror to someone who might share the enemy's religion?

Hillary pretended to acknowledge this as a smear but quickly turned the moment back to herself by recalling all the "smears" she and her husband had endured.

THE PENN MEMOS would also seem to explain the juxtaposition of the infamous red phone ad with these tactics. Hillary was trying hard to portray herself as a patriotic, even Christian, American running against a less-than-patriotic, possibly Muslim opponent not terribly committed to the war on terror.

In one of the debates, Hillary jumped on Louis Farrakhan's endorsement of Obama, forcing him to disavow the "Nation of Islam."

Meanwhile, she was sending Bill and Chelsea Clinton to Christian churches and her staffers were appearing on television shows wearing crosses. During the make-or-break Texas primary, she dispatched Bill and Chelsea to Joel Osteen's Christian mega-church in Houston to burnish her Christian credentials.

Realizing what Penn was up to, Obama repeatedly called himself a "devout Christian." Nevertheless, Clinton followed Penn's advice to some crucial victories.

Even Hillary's handling of the Jeremiah Wright episode, though perhaps more restrained than Penn wanted, is put into perspective by this sentiment in one of his memos: "If you believe that serious issues need to be raised then we have to raise them without continual hesitation and we should be pushing the envelope.

"Won't a single tape of [the Reverend Jeremiah] Wright going off on America with Obama sitting there be a game ender? Many people (Peter Hart excluded) believe under the surface that 20 years sitting there with Goddamn America would make him unelectable by itself."

By the end of the race, drawing upon all of these controversies, Hillary was running an almost comically parasitic campaign that fed off of conservative fears. She was throwing back whiskeys and groaning about the anti-American "elite," to whom, she noted, her opponent had pandered in San Francisco when he talked about embittered Americans attached to their "God and guns."

OBAMA CERTAINLY took Penn's assessment of his principal weakness seriously, and still does, as evident in his very defensive reaction to the friendly, though bumbling, New Yorker parody of him in a turban. Had the image not kicked up the same fears Hillary was trying to exploit in the campaign, he wouldn't have bothered to condemn it.

The Atlantic> calls Penn's targeting of Obama's "lack of American roots" an "astonishing" suggestion. But this isn't the first Democratic primary in which an adviser encouraged a liberal to attack opportunistically from the right, as Chris Matthews and others have lamented.

Hillary was merely playing Al Gore to Obama's Michael Dukakis. (Gore was the first to use the issue of Willie Horton against Dukakis.) What's surprising is not that Penn suggested it but that he did so in writing.

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About the Author
George Neumayr, a contributing editor to The American Spectator, is co-author of No Higher Power: Obama's War on Religious Freedom.