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Just before Texas' and Ohio's primaries, Mark Penn told the Los Angeles Times that he wasn't actually in charge of the Clinton campaign. He was just a high-profile "outside message advisor," he said—but nobody believed him. Many within the Clinton brain trust suggested Penn was trying to save his own skin as the campaign went down in flames, since it was his strategy that torched Clinton's hopes in the first place. Now that he has left the campaign, Clinton can shake free of his failed strategy, campaign in the remaining states on a platform of experience and emotion, and convince superdelegates that she's turned the page on her past failures. As a result, we're bumping her chances of winning up by 0.5 percentage points.
Penn stepped down from his role as chief strategist yesterday, three days after it was revealed that he met with the Colombian government to help broker a Colombia-U.S. trade deal that is too free trade-y for Hillary Clinton's taste. Ostensibly, Penn met with Colombia as the president and CEO of his PR firm—but Penn's and the firm's bond with the Clinton campaign was too tight to ignore. Clinton reportedly paid Penn $13 million for his services—an amount you don't pony up if the recipient is working against your interests in his down time.
For Deathwatch purposes, Penn's dismissal is good news for Hillary. Among the high-level staffers—who often butted heads with Penn—it will boost morale. (Even after Texas and Ohio primary wins, one anonymous senior adviser told the Washington Post, "A lot of people would still like to see him go.") Penn's speedy exit also allows Clinton to look even more resolute in her opposition to trade deals that don't primarily benefit American workers. If she spins it right, this should help in Pennsylvania and Indiana.
We should caution that Penn isn't completely exorcised. He "will continue to provide polling and advice to the campaign," according to campaign manager Maggie Williams. If Penn still has Hillary's ear, then Clinton can't completely break free from his campaign advice. And remember, as lauded a strategist as Penn was, his campaign advice led Hillary to columns like this. When you dump the dead weight overboard, you can't circle back once night falls, retrieve it from the ocean, and whisper sweet nothings to it in secret. On the whole, though, the Penn departure is a healthy one for Clinton's pursuit of the Holy Grail.
For Clinton, more good news came out of yesterday's talk-show circuit. Before the Penn story consumed the political press, Virginia Sen. (and superdelegate) Jim Webb said that he has no problem waiting to endorse a candidate until after all the states have voted. Webb is a respected, high-profile freshman senator, and other rookie congressmen may follow his lead. (Half of 2006's new congressional Democrats haven't endorsed Clinton or Barack Obama.) The longer superdelegates hold out, the more time Clinton has to wine and dine them.
Speaking of superdelegates, Clinton has once again seen an uncommitted super mosey over to Obama. A Montana state legislator, Margaret Campbell, is expected to endorse Obama on Monday—continuing his dominance among superdelegates since Feb. 5. Because of the daunting math confronting Clinton, it's unlikely that she'll grab a significant number of superdelegate endorsements until after Pennsylvania—and that's the best-case scenario. That still leaves two weeks for Obama to own the endorsement headlines. Mark Penn, back in his chief strategist days, wouldn't have been pleased about that.