Hillary Clinton’s campaign has just dumped her chief strategist, less than two weeks before the crucial Pennsylvania primary. The fact that pollster Mark Penn continued to pursue work for his lobbying firm Burson-Marsteller as he worked on the Clinton campaign was always going to be a problem and on Friday, it bit. Penn apologised for meeting with Colombian officials to push for a US trade agreement with that country on behalf of his firm, despite the fact that Clinton opposes that deal.

The statement from campaign manager Maggie Williams reads: “After the events of the last few days, Mark Penn has asked to give up his role as chief strategist of the Clinton campaign; Mark, and [his company] Penn, Schoen and Berland Associates, Inc. will continue to provide polling and advice to the campaign. Geoff Garin and Howard Wolfson will coordinate the campaign’s strategic message team going forward.”

Given that the Clinton camp went after Barack Obama hard when a top Obama adviser met with Canadian officials to allegedly offer reassurances that Obama’s tough anti-NAFTA talk wasn’t serious — this one was never going to slide.

Clinton’s right hand man quits: Sen. Hillary Clinton’s chief presidential campaign strategist is quitting his post amid criticism of his public relations firm’s contacts with the Colombian government over a pending free-trade deal, Clinton’s campaign announced. Mark Penn will continue to advise Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. Mark Penn and his political consulting firm will continue advise the New York senator’s Democratic presidential bid, but Penn will give up his job as chief strategist, campaign manager Maggie Williams said. “After the events of the last few days, Mark Penn has asked to give up his role as chief strategist of the Clinton campaign,” Williams said. Penn is CEO of public relations giant Burston Marsteller and is president of Penn, Schoen and Berland, his political consulting firm. — CNN

Penn’s nightmare campaign: Penn and Clinton have a lengthy history dating back to her time as first lady. In 1996, the strategist famously targeted “soccer moms” to help then President Clinton get reelected. Penn took the reigns of Hillary Clinton’s 2000 Senate campaign in New York and was credited with helping her overcome high negative ratings to win in a state where she had no geographic roots. This campaign season, however, has been, by most measures, a rocky one. Penn’s strategy to ostensibly write off caucus states out of the conviction that Clinton could wrap up the nomination early in the primary backfired. And throughout the course of the campaign he has bickered — occasionally in public — with fellow staff. — The Huffington Post

McCain’s housing plan: Obama says McCain’s (again, relatively) noninterventionist response to credit difficulties proves that he favours a “you’re on your own” society. McCain, a center-right candidate seeking to lead a center-right country, should embrace Obama’s accusation as an accolade, saying: This is the crux of the difference between the two parties — belief in the competence, responsibility and accountability of individuals. When Obama characterizes my position as “little more than watching this crisis happen,” he again has part of a point. The housing market must find its bottom, and no good will can come from delaying the day that it does. — George Will, The Washington Post

Leno v Colbert: There are good and sound economic reasons for this, of course. Someone as focused on numbers as Jay Leno is not about to sacrifice half his viewers for the sake of bringing down George W. Bush’s immigration policy. Johnny Carson never even mentioned the Vietnam War. True satire can take root only in the exurbs of cable, where comic pioneers smoke out the vipers in democracy’s den. Bill Maher, Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert — in Peterson’s cosmology, these are the true heroes of late-night, because they ground even their harshest commentary in “a faith in the political process.” And on that score, nobody has ascended higher than the “Lincolnish” Colbert, whose Gettysburg Address coincided with the 2006 White House Correspondents’ Association dinner, a normally inane and self-congratulatory affair prodded into fretful life by Colbert’s assault. Afterward, the dragoons of the press corps (Chris Matthews, Wolf Blitzer, Richard Cohen) fell over themselves declaring that Colbert had bombed. In fact, he’d been throwing bombs. Right into their laps. “Here’s how it works,” Colbert explained. “The president makes decisions. He’s the decider. The press secretary announces those decisions, and you people of the press type those decisions down. Make, announce, type. Just put ’em through a spell check and go home … Write that novel you got kicking around in your head. You know, the one about the intrepid Washington reporter with the courage to stand up to the administration. You know — fiction!” Colbert’s address perfectly meets Peterson’s criteria for genuine satire: It causes its targets either to take umbrage or to “adopt a studied silence.” — Salon

Obama goes for guns: Neither hunter or fisher, big-city politician Barack Obama nevertheless makes a play for pro-gun voters in rural Pennsylvania. Barack Obama did not hunt or fish as a child. He lives in a big city. And as an Illinois state legislator and a U.S. senator, he consistently backed gun control legislation. But he is nevertheless making a play for pro-gun voters in rural Pennsylvania. By highlighting his background in constitutional law and downplaying his voting record, Obama is engaging in a quiet but targeted drive to win over an important constituency that on the surface might seem hostile to his views. — Politico

Vices on the campaign trail: McCain’s pals know him as a man who enjoys libations of vodka with little green cocktail olives. Over the years, at dinners with reporters, I noted he had the habit of ordering one double vodka and sipping it slowly. And there was that famous Hillary-McCain Estonian drink-off in 2004, when Hillary instigated a vodka shot contest and McCain agreed with alacrity (even though he later offered a sketchy denial). Maybe now that he’s the presumptive Republican nominee, his campaign wants to put his vices in a vise and sanitize the wild side of the man whose nicknames in high school were “Punk,” “Nasty” and “McNasty.” — The New York Times

Lessons from Ron Paul: At this advanced stage of the presidential race, it probably seems bizarre that anyone would be writing about a guy who had as much of a chance to be president as Harold Stassen, who made nine unsuccessful bids for the Republican nomination between 1948 and 1992. Throughout the campaign, the media have treated Paul as a footnote. Snickering pundits all but dismissed him as a cranky kook, in the tradition of another Lone Star State insurgent, Ross Perot. Even when the mainstream publications covered him, you could imagine the assignment editors rolling their eyes in amusement, like parents patronizing a child. Yet anyone who looked hard enough knew that there was more to Paul than an inability to amass delegates. Most of the media, turned off by his shrill libertarian leanings, missed the real news value of Paul’s story — namely, the Texas congressman’s ability to connect intensely with voters. Paul certainly inspired them to open their wallets. On Dec. 16 alone, Paul raised $6 million, which has been described as the biggest one-day take ever. (It also yielded the coolest phrase to emerge from this campaign: “money bomb,” which refers to a grassroots fundraising effort over a brief fixed time period.) — Market Watch

Get Crikey for $1 a week.

Lockdowns are over and BBQs are back! At last, we get to talk to people in real life. But conversation topics outside COVID are so thin on the ground.

Join Crikey and we’ll give you something to talk about. Get your first 12 weeks for $12 to get stories, analysis and BBQ stoppers you won’t see anywhere else.

Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
12 weeks for just $12.