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Penn Quarter

3:42 PM, Apr 7, 2008 • By MATTHEW CONTINETTI
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The Clintonites have found their scapegoat, and his name is Mark Penn. The pollster and political consultant announced yesterday that he will step down from the post of chief strategist for the Clinton campaign. This, after it was revealed that Penn had met with representatives from Colombia, the U.S. ally in South America. Colombia had hired Penn as a consultant to help shepherd the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement, which Bush transmitted to Congress today, to passage. Clinton opposes the agreement. So Penn had to go.

The truth is that the long knives have been out for Penn for some time. He is blamed either for (a) Clinton's losses or (b) not being "progressive" enough in an increasingly left-wing Democratic party. But such arguments inflate Penn's importance. For evidence of this, look no further than Advertising Age's new profile of Penn, out today:

The stage was set, in other words, for Mr. Penn to take a Karl Rove-like place in the American consciousness as the brilliant, behind-the-scenes demographer and data analyst, emerging to shape political communications on the grandest stage of all. Then Ms. Clinton and Mr. Penn were hit by the juggernaut that is Barack Obama and a campaign based not on segmentation but on an idea of change that, though often vague, clearly has hit the right emotional pitch for Democratic voters.

The sexiness and broad appeal of that idea has left 'Clinton's PowerPointer,' as the Washington Post described Mr. Penn a year ago, presiding over a campaign increasingly seen by Democrats as a strife-ridden and stubborn self-indulgence that could actually harm the party in the general-election battle against a rested and ready John McCain -- especially if the Obama vs. Clinton battle snarls its way to the convention in August. In short, Mr. Microtrend was undone by a macrotrend: A large swath of voters, it turned out, didn't want another political dynasty or 'experience.' They wanted transformation.

Please. In fact, the Democratic primary electorate has shown signs of segmentation, as Clinton wins down-scale whites, older women, unionists, Latinos, and Catholics and Obama wins liberal professionals, young people, and African-Americans.

These coalitions are evenly matched, which is why Clinton and Obama are more or less tied when you look at the popular vote and pledged delegates. The tiebreakers - the superdelegates - will in the end support Obama, for two reasons. First, many Democratic elites, including some former Clintonites, are ready to "move on" from the Clintons. And second, the Democrats are terrified that awarding the nomination to Clinton, who will not win the popular vote, would risk splitting the party and guarantee defeat in November.

Neither reason has anything to do with Mark Penn.

There's a tendency among the Beltway press - myself included! - to hype the role strategists and policy wonks play in campaigns. You can't really blame us; we have to find something to write about, after all. But voters make judgments not on the basis of who a candidate's senior adviser is but whether or not that candidate is likable, competent, and articulates a vision of the country's future that the voter supports. No matter what you hear, Mark Penn is not the reason for Hillary Clinton's looming failure. Clinton is.