Soccer Moms: Busy suburban mothers concerned with issues heavy on symbolism, like curfews, school uniforms and teen smoking.
Soccer Wives: Former members of the Spice Girls who are married to David Beckham. Soccer Balls: Equipment used when playing soccer.
The above are just three of the constituencies that Mark Penn identified that were crucial to President Bill Clinton’s 1996 re-election campaign. Now, Penn has been ousted as Hillary Clinton’s chief political strategist due to what he admitted was “an error in judgment.” Prior to that he ran Hillary’s campaign off a cliff. How does one explain Penn’s descent from indispensable genius to a constantly second-guessed millstone?
I have the inside story.
In my spare time I am the top consultant in politics today and the one-man crisis management team of last resort. (I wrote, "I don't recall," for Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez. Prior to my coming on board Gonzalez was going to go with, "Wow, how did you guys find out about that?") Two weeks ago, Mark Penn called me, clearly despondent.
When my cell phone rang, I was on Dupont Circle heading to Dulles Airport to drop off my nineteen-year-old son, Hugo. He was on his way to Cabo San Lucas for spring break. (I don't have a son, but I need one for this column as a narrative device; let us proceed.) “Tell him I want to go, too!” Mark shouted into the phone. I explained that what Hugo wanted was a week of sun, sand and under-age drinking, not to consult with the Pemex about brand marketing and so he probably wouldn’t appreciate Mark’s company. Mark was insistent. “I have to get out of DC and I don’t want to go to Pennsylvania!”
Before you know it, Mark, Hugo and I were reclining on lounge chairs by the pool at the Cabo Hay-Adams, surrounded by drunk, half naked college students, all wearing sombreros. “I don’t want to be in Cabo with two old guys,” Hugo complained, “I’ll never meet a girl.” Hugo is bookish and a bit blotchy. “Mark will get you a girl,” I told Hugo. “Really?” Hugo said. “The man got Clinton re-elected in ’96,” I explained, “if he can do that, he can do anything.”
A waitress arrived and Hugo ordered a Pepsi with an umbrella, I ordered a Miller-Lite and Mark ordered a bottle of 1787 Chateau Lafite. Mark began to talk. He was, indeed, very depressed. I sympathathized. Anyone, let alone the guy in charge, would be sure to be dejected watching his candidate be eclipsed by a one-term senator who can’t even bowl. Mark looked at me, completely baffled. “Screw Hillary,” he said, “I’m worried about me! I used to be the golden boy, now everyone thinks I’m a dope. I have to repair my image!”
Clearly, what was needed was a focus group, but where could we find a sample of our target market – cable talk-show pundits - let alone a one-way mirror? No problem! Scattered around the pool we found ten sorority sisters from La Jolla Community College, all of them blond, with vacant eyes, and all of whom I’d seen on The O’Reilly Factor identified by the chyron “Campaign Consultant.”
Not surprisingly, the first area of consensus we reached was that Mark should stop getting his hair cut with a weed wacker. Next, we asked our focus group if they were bothered that Mark had not suspended his corporate PR work while working on the Hillary’s campaign. “No, no, we don’t mind that,” one of the sisters answered as she refilled her friends beer bong, “Greed is good!”
“That’s it,” I cried out, “the obvious solution!” Mark looked at me, brow furrowed, not getting it. “We have to rebrand the disaster that is you,” I explained. “Let’s say – just spit-balling here – you set up a meeting with the Colombian ambassador to the United States to advocate for a free trade agreement. Then, we leak it to the press! Then, you apologize and call it an ‘error in judgment.’ You’ll get kicked off the campaign for a glaring conflict of interest and no one will remember that you should have been kicked off a long time ago for being incompetent!” Mark gave me a big hug. Once again, I’d earned my exorbitant fee.
And Hugo? We got him a girl. She cost us $4,000, but a bed at the Mayflower Hotel is a lot more comfortable than a beach towel on the sand in Cabo.