Mark Penn, the chief strategist for Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign, stepped down Sunday after it was revealed that one of his private business deals conflicted with Clinton's agenda. Penn and his consulting firm, which has reportedly received $10.8 million thus far from the Clinton campaign, will continue to conduct polling for the candidate. When advisers resign, do they really stop giving advice?
It depends how badly they screwed up. The No. 1 prerogative for an aide or adviser who has attracted bad publicity is to get out of the spotlight as soon as possible, even if his or her relationship with the candidate was informal to begin with. More often than not, this means cutting ties with the candidate altogether—at least for a while. If further communication does take place, it is under strict secrecy to avoid any resurrection of the scandal.
Both the Clinton and Obama campaigns have excommunicated informal advisers in the past several months in response to remarks that upset the other camp. Clinton parted ways with former vice-presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro after Ferraro alluded to Obama's race as the reason for his popularity; Harvard professor Samantha Power resigned as a foreign-policy adviser to Obama after being quoted calling Clinton a "monster." Both women were unpaid and had less formal relationships to the campaigns than Penn, but they have nevertheless been kept away from the campaigns from that point. (Power did not respond to the Explainer's request for comment about whether she has had any further contact with Obama since resigning.)
In that light, Clinton's decision to keep Penn on as a pollster is unusual. While Penn is losing his job as the top crafter of the campaign message, his demotion is far from the usual excommunication meted out to disgraced aides. Historically, presidential candidates have erred on the side of outright firing when it comes to staffers and aides who have been caught with their hands dirty. In September 1987, Michael Dukakis let go of his campaign manager John Sasso when it came out that Sasso was behind plagiarism accusations levied against Democratic rival Joseph Biden. In the last election, the top outside counsel for the Bush-Cheney re-election campaign, Benjamin Ginsberg, resigned after it was discovered that he was also advising the independent Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.
In some cases, contact does continue between advisers and their former bosses. In 1996, Bill Clinton's re-election campaign was quick to drop high-ranking aide Dick Morris after a tabloid revealed his relationship with a prostitute. But Morris continued to dole out his advice in the ensuing years, notably during the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Dukakis actually rehired John Sasso in 1988, after deciding that Sasso had "paid his price"—and that he might be able to help revive a struggling campaign. Since resigning, Power has hinted that she may have some role in the future with Obama's campaign or administration, should he win the primary or the general election.
In the meantime, Penn appears to be unusually close to the Clinton campaign for an ousted adviser. Atlantic blogger Marc Ambinder reported today that Penn was on the campaign's regular daily conference call as usual.
Explainer thanks F. Christopher Arterton and Dennis W. Johnson of George Washington University, Casey Klofstad of the University of Miami, and Larry J. Sabato of the University of Virginia.