The Clinton campaign recently demoted Penn from chief strategist to mere pollster because - with his Burson hat on - Penn had met with representatives of the Colombian government to help promote a free trade agreement that Clinton opposes. But in fact, the demotion may have been based on more than just the Colombia faux pas.
Penn was the principal architect of the original Clinton strategy - one that has left the former front-runner straggling behind Sen. Barack Obama. Many of those inside and outside the campaign believe that Penn's strategy - positioning Clinton as the inevitable nominee and focusing on large, primary states to the exclusion of the "fly over" caucus states - is largely to blame for what now seems to be near certain failure.
Penn's contribution to Clinton's message probably did the campaign even more harm than his political strategy. Penn is the author of Microtrends: The Small Forces Behind Tomorrow's Big Changes - a book focused on the "slivering (of) America into hundreds of small niches." Penn has taken John Edwards' vision of "two Americas" (rich versus everyone else) as mere table stakes and has gone "all in." "There is no One America anymore, or Two, or Three, or Eight. In fact, there are hundreds of Americas, hundreds of new niches made up of people drawn together by common interests," he writes.
Penn identifies a number of political niche groups with clever names, like "impressionable elites," "militant illegals," "Christian Zionists," and, even, "newly released ex-cons" (presumably not a voter group since only Maine and Vermont have unrestricted voting available to convicted felons). This political worldview leads inevitably to niche messaging - an endless string of little messages aimed at little voting groups.
Penn road-tested this approach in Bill Clinton's 1996 re-election campaign. It was he who contrived a message about the importance of school uniforms as a way to appeal to "soccer moms" (a phrase he says he coined). Clinton won re-election easily, but it strains credulity that school uniforms was a better message than peace and prosperity (which was also available to the President).
Meanwhile, Obama has traveled a different rhetorical road. His core message - "there is no red America or blue America, no black America or white America" - challenges the underlying Penn notion that what divides Americans is more important - and politically powerful - than what unites us. Obama appeals, like Lincoln before him, to "our better angels," rather than to our individual guardian angel. It is that commitment to transcending divisive, slice-and-dice politics that has so powerfully propelled his candidacy.
Sen. Clinton and Penn still don't get this. They mockingly attribute Obama's success to "celestial" rhetoric and the radical activists at MoveOn.org. Obama, though, has identified a political megatrend that will trump a thousand microtrends every time.
Greg Schneiders is a founding partner of Prime Group, a consultancy that specializes in helping clients understand, plan, and execute change. Greg@primegroupllc.com.