Sunday, April 06, 2008

Mark Penn's "departure" illustrates Clinton's conflicts of interest

This evening, Hillary Clinton's top political strategist Mark Penn announced he was stepping down from his position with the Clinton campaign, but he hastened to add that he and his consulting firm would continue to advise the Clinton campaign.

It's difficult to see this move as anything other than a cynical bit of empty symbolism. The only thing Penn is giving up is an empty title: he retains his influence and his paycheck from the Clinton campaign.

Mark Penn is himself a symbol of much of what is wrong with the Clinton campaign. Clinton has been criticized for allowing lobbyists--and lobbyist money--to play such an influential role in her campaign. This arrangement created the appearance--and ultimately the reality--of a conflict of interest. The breaking point was a meeting between Penn and the ambassador of Columbia to discuss a free trade agreement between Columbia and the United States. Clinton has said that she opposes the treaty, and the continued presence of Penn in her campaign presents both an apparent and and actual conflict of interest.

But of course Penn isn't really leaving at all. He retains his access and influence over a person who is running for the presidency of the United States. At the same time, he continues to trade on and profit from that relationship.

Penn's "non-departure departure" illustrates the kind of influence that high-powered lobbyists exercise on Clinton's campaign and policy agenda.

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