Has Hillary Clinton Learned from 2008 Mistakes?

Will the prohibitive favorite for the 2016 Democratic nomination do it differently this time around?


While acknowledging that Hillary Clinton is the prohibitive favorite to win the 2016 Democratic nomination and probably the presidency at this ridiculously early stage, Alex Pareene issues one big caveat:

The question for someone considering whether or not to support Clinton in 2016 is, will a Clinton 2016 campaign pass the Mark Penn Test? The Mark Penn Test, which I just invented, determines whether or not a person should be trusted with the presidency, based solely on one criterion: Whether or not they pay Mark Penn to do anything for their campaign. Paying Mark Penn means you’ve failed the Mark Penn Test.

Mark Penn is a pollster and political strategist and amoral P.R. creature who is generally wrongabout everything. To find out how incompetent Mark Penn is at campaign strategy and how personally toxic he is in a campaign working environment go to your local library and check out literally any book about the 2008 presidential race. For the basics, check here and here. In short, he had no clue how the primaries actually worked and constantly pushed for the campaign to go as nasty and negative as possible, and everyone hated him and he was bad at his job and eventually he was fired.

Fired, but still well compensated. Since Clinton’s 2008 campaign ended, she has milked her donors — and Obama supporters — for millions of dollars to pay off her campaign’s debt. $5.4 million of the debt — all of it, that is — was owed to Mark Penn’s firm Penn, Schoen & Berland. Anyone donating money to Clinton since 2008 has essentially been paying off the man who did more than anyone outside the Obama campaign to prevent her from becoming president. The debt was only just paid off in full in January, just as Clinton left the State Department and shortly before the new pro-Clinton super PAC began operating.

Mark Penn is just the worst example of the general Clinton family habit of associating with the most repulsive party hacks the Democrats have to offer. Her campaign was a dream team of generally useless hacks, from sweatered communications director Howard Wolfson to charmless fundraiser Terry McAuliffe to ill-tempered Harold Ickes (who, unlike the rest of the campaign, at least seemed mostly competent). These are the same Clintons who are responsible for the national stature, such as it is, of Dick Morris. In general, the Clintons run with a pretty lousy crowd. (And this is not even getting into Bill Clinton’s many gross rich man-child “friends,” like Ron Burkle.)

So, in 2016, will Hillary Clinton surround herself again with longtime Democratic National Committee and Clinton administration veterans whose primary qualification for their positions is knowing the Clintons? Or will she hire people who understand that the Democratic Party coalition, and the ways to appeal to its many members, have changed?

While both insightful and amusing, it’s worth caveating the caveat. In addition to being an extraordinarily charismatic candidate, having been right on the Iraq War–the most divisive issue of the day among Democratic primary voters–when Clinton was wrong, Obama’s team mastered data analysis, social media, and the vagaries of the delegate selection rules in a way that no other candidate of either party has yet matched. Yet, Clinton came pretty close to winning the 2008 nomination despite all that.

And whoever won the Democratic nomination was going to win the general. John McCain had a puncher’s chance, even with the historic unpopularity of the sitting Republican administration, until the financial crisis hit. At that point, Mike Gravel could have beaten him. (And, no, the Sarah Palin debacle didn’t help matters. But recall that she was chosen as a Hail Mary “game change” pick precisely because McCain’s situation was so desperate.)

There is no 2016 version of Barack Obama out there. So, Clinton could have her campaign run by the tag team of Mark Penn, Bob Shrum, and Susan Estrich and win the nomination.

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2016, US Politics
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. superdestroyer says:

    What most wonks refuse to admit is that if Hillary wins in Iowa and New Hampshire, then everyone will know you will be the next president almost a full year before the inaugural.

    I hope that a few wonks will be honest enough to admit that there is no way that the Republicans will ever win a presidential election again and that there is no reason for the national media to cover the Republican Primaries or to treat Republican candidates are serious candidates.

  2. Tsar Nicholas says:

    Well, Hillary won almost all of the major primaries, often by double digits or thereabouts (CA, NY, OH, PA, NJ, etc.), despite the pro-Obama media, but still lost the nomination. Obama destroyed her in the caucus states, winning most of those by 2-1 margins. Apparently white Democrats didn’t want to stand in front of their neighbors and take the risk of being thought of as racists. And of course blacks voted in lock step for Obama, throughout the country, which meant that Obama won the Southern states going away.

    I don’t know that Hillary made a single “mistake” back in 2008, other than not realizing she had to focus on those low-population caucus states. You can’t do anything about lock step voting by race, whether you’re Hillary Clinton, John McCain or Mitt Romney.

    In any event, Hillary is a skilled and ruthless politician. Certainly she’ll have an organization in place this time around for the caucus states. Obviously her people behind the scenes will work to try to keep Deval Patrick and then Cory Booker out of the contest. And if it turns out to be Hillary vs. Cuomo and nobody else of consequence then it would appear at first glance that Hillary will have that contest wrapped up by the end of the South Carolina primary, if not sooner.

    Then again, three years is an eternity in politics, so I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.

  3. James Joyner says:

    @superdestroyer: There’s no way the Republican Party of 2012 wins a presidential election again. It’s a near certainly that an entity calling itself the Republican Party will win again, likely fairly soon.

  4. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @superdestroyer: Can’t even wait to see who runs before declaring the GOP DOA, eh? Do you ever get tired of the same old song and dance? If I were you, I’d change the station.

  5. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Tsar Nicholas:

    And of course blacks voted in lock step for Obama, throughout the country, which meant that Obama won the Southern states going away.

    I wonder in what fact challenged world you live in where you can ignore the millions of blacks who voted for Hillary in ’08, and also forget the hundreds of thousands of white candidates that blacks have voted for ever since they first got the vote?

    Yes, blacks are the true racists because they overwhelmingly voted for the first black candidate for President. Never mind that neither McCain nor Romney even tried to earn their votes.

  6. superdestroyer says:

    @James Joyner:


    If you want to see the future, you would look at the U.S. Senate special election in Mass. The media cannot force themselves to treat the election as meaningful since everyone knows that Markey will win.

    Look at California where the two Senators and the governor are all Democrats, all are over 70 y/o in a state that supposedly like youth, and all of them were re-elected easily. Can you really say with a straight face that the Republicans are going to make a comeback in California. And if the Republicans cannot make a comeback in California, when they will not remain relevant in a country where the future demographics will resemble what California has today.

    Wonks need to break free of the conventional wisdom that caused so many of them to embarrass themselves in 2012 and realize that demographic is destiny and there is no room in the U.S. for a conservative party.

  7. superdestroyer says:


    In January 2012, I said that Romney had no chance of winning the general election in 2012 and I was correct. I said that if the Republicans have to put effort into North Carolina and Virgnia then they cannot win a general election. Do you really see any Republican candidates making Virginia and North Carolina a lock for the Republicans.

    Also, 2012 should convince everyone how unimportant money is in election. Romney was rolling in money and it had no effect on the elections. Demographics and the changing economy of the U.S. trump money, candidates, or issues. And the Republicans are losing on virtually every demographic trends in the U.S.

  8. James Joyner says:

    @superdestroyer: There are a handful of states where Republicans have a steep uphill climb. But it’s not because of race but rather ideology. Those states are libertarian or liberal, not conservative.

    Aside from party hacks, most pundits predicted an Obama win long before the election. Certainly, we wrote dozens of posts at OTB arguing that it was Obama’s election to lose well before the GOP primaries. It’s not because whites are becoming less dominant—although that’s part of it—but because the GOP as presently constituted only appeals to a small subset of the electorate.

  9. superdestroyer says:

    @James Joyner:

    Demographics means more than whites and non-whites. There is no way the more conservative party can appeal to single mothers and yet, soon more than 50% of the children born will be born to single mothers. There is no way the more conservative party can appeal to people on social security disability. Yet that number grows. There is no way the more conservative party can appeal to public sector employees or to people who work in higher education. Yet, those appear to be two parts of the workforce that will remain stable and maintain their pay versus pay cuts and job cuts in defense, health care, energy, and manufacturing.

    You seem to take the position that the U.S. needs two liberal parties when every liberal states demonstrates that it does not.

    The quesiton for 2016 is whether Hillary Clinton is the right person to lead the U.S. into becoming a bigger welfare state and to be the tax collector for the growing entitlement state.

  10. Scott says:

    A more interesting question is whether Hillary has the right skill set to be President. I think she was a pretty good NY senator as well as a completely capable Secretary of State. Does that mean she has the chops to be President?

    Does anyone anymore? I find the expectations and the burdens of that office so high that I’m not sure anyone can master it. They can only hold on and try not to go bust.

    So a lot depends on who Hillary surrounds herself with and how well she can delegate and trust. The object of the article casts doubt that Hillary will succeed if she surrounds herself with those of the past.

    It will be interesting to see how this all plays out.

  11. john personna says:

    My prediction – she will not run, but everyone will waste tremendous time and energy on a low probability future. Buy hey, unlikely concerns are the soul of the internet.

  12. Tony W says:


    there is no room in the U.S. for a conservative party.

    There is no way the more conservative party can appeal to single mothers and yet, soon more than 50% of the children born will be born to single mothers

    Is there no group you cannot divide off in your quest to slice and dice and categorize the population of the United States?

    “Single Mothers” have two things in common – a child (of some age) and no government-recognized marriage. However they could be in a long-term relationship with a man or a woman, be financially secure, have professional interests, etc. All of those things affect how she will vote far more than her “single mother” status.

    As James says above, there is indeed no room for a “conservative” party as exists today, because that party is *not* conservative. The Republicans have become the party of government control in the bedroom and doctors office, wild military spending, obstructionist governance and infrastructure decay.

    Nobody sane would vote for those things.

  13. OzarkHillbilly says:


    In January 2012, I said that Romney had no chance of winning the general election in 2012 and I was correct.

    I was almost impressed by that, but then I looked at the stop clock over my desk and noted that it has been right twice a day since it stopped running a week ago. I did the math and that means it has been right 14 times in 7 days. You, however, have only been right twice in 5 years or so.

    I wouldn’t brag too much about your track record.

  14. Fog says:

    “And of course blacks voted in lock step for Obama…”
    Lay off poor SD, folks. He’s a good tribal man, so he can’t imagine people who are not. Very similar to Sue Everhart. When you’re a scammer, everything looks like a scam.

  15. C. Clavin says:

    “…There is no way the more conservative party can appeal to single mothers…”

    Of course a Conservative Party can appeal to single mothers…but not if what you call Conservative is only about tax cuts for the rich and control of womens reproductive organs…and if you look at the track record of the Republican Party since November ’11 that’s all it is.
    Real Conservatism has so much to offer us as a country. Republicanists…nothing at all.
    The problem is not single mothers…in spite of what the always bigoted Superdope may believe…the problem is today’s Republican Party.

  16. Barry says:

    @James Joyner: “There’s no way the Republican Party of 2012 wins a presidential election again. It’s a near certainly that an entity calling itself the Republican Party will win again, likely fairly soon. ”

    I like this!

    OTOH, in many ways I disagree. The only thing that they really need to change is their f-ed up primary system. I’ve repeatedly said that the ’16 primary will be shorter, and limited to serious candidates only (people like Bachmann, Gingrich, Cain, won’t be allowed in the room).

  17. Rob in CT says:

    1. 8 years of water under the bridge. In 2008, her support for the Iraq war was damning. In 2016, it would be less so. Some of us will remember and give her a demerit for it, but many will not. If she runs.

    2. Old habits die hard, so who knows?

    Personally, I’m torn. I’m sure she’s a fairly strong candidate, but part of me just wants to be done with the same families (Bush-Clinton-Bush-Obama-Clinton?). So, while I very much want the Dems to win in 2016 (barring a *HUGE* change to the GOP, which I don’t see happening), and Hillary likely helps there, I kinda want her to gracefully bow out. Also, too: the first female Pres thing would be a nice milestone, I know.

  18. Xenos says:


    Never mind that neither McCain nor Romney even tried to earn their votes.

    That is not entirely fair. In both cases the GOP campaigns tried to earn minority votes by being insulting and openly contemptuous of minorities. This was not a smart way to earn votes, but they probably had politically demented people like Herman Cain and Ben Carson telling them it would work just fine.

  19. carpeicthus says:

    I think superdestroyer exists to show that Tsar’s contrarian instincts will force him to make sensible arguments when he’s backed into the right corner.

  20. wr says:

    @Fog: SuperD isn’t a scammer. He’s the epitome of the scammee.

  21. MM says:

    And if we go back 8 years ago, everyone was saying that the 2008 nomination was Hillary Clinton’s to lose as well.

  22. Laurence Bachmann says:

    Mr. Joyner:

    I think your post is on to something (who wouldn’t want Mark Penn and Dick Morris absent from the public square?), but might overestimate Hillary’s sense of loyalty. Only an imbecile would rehire anyone from a campaign that underachieved so magnificently as her 2008 effort, or that squandered $ the way she did previously (remember her pizza bill after the Iowa caucus?). Hillary is many things, but not stupid.

    It also ignores a few very important pluses not present 5 years ago–Liberals were enraged by not only her support of the Iraqi war but her refusal to acknowledge it as a mistake. They aren’t angry at her anymore–her “good soldier” effort on behalf of Obama and her 2008 speech to the convention healed that wound. The Liberal wing of the party is lined up on her behalf.

    The stench of Bill, over time, has dissipated. Lots of us still wish they could have Hill without Bill, but are willing to hold our noses and overlook indiscretions and failures (Monica/DOMA/DADT) nearly two decades old. His mea culpa on marriage equality and detente with Obama was as helpful to Bill as to Barack. I could let him back in the White House without gagging. Something I wouldn’t say even a year ago.

    Most importantly, if she runs–and I am not yet convinced she will–she will do so without the smug presumption that was so very offensive to so very many. Her 2008 campaign started as a coronation, not a contest in doubt. I am certain this time we will be shown the hard-working, dedicated public servant–the Hillary Democrats love and respect.

    So I think Mark Penn is doomed. But if not–if he is so much as a mere “consultant”–ignore all of the above. The blur you see after his appointment will be hoards of us jumping off the Hillary Bandwagon.

  23. Fog says:

    WR: I agree. I expressed myself poorly. I should have said that SD, being a tribal man, views everything through that lens, while Sue Everhart, being a scammer, sees everything through a scammer’s lense. I neither case do they have the imagination to see people in any other way. My bad.

  24. Brummagem Joe says:

    @James Joyner:

    He’s exaggerating of course ridiculously but as of right now Clinton is the prohibitive favorite in 2016 and this takes us to 2020. Maybe Art Schlesinger was right after all.

  25. James Joyner says:

    @Brummagem Joe: Sure. But the Democrats won just one presidential election in the 20 years from 1968 to 1988, and that closely under the most advantageous circumstances imaginable. In the 24 years since, they’ve won the popular vote in all but one election. Things have a way of correcting.

  26. James Joyner says:

    @Laurence Bachmann: Oh, I don’t mean to suggest she will or should hire Mark Penn. Simply that, despite Penn’s gross incompetence, she damn near won anyway. So, I’m not sure why we should think he fate is contingent on hiring the right campaign manager.

  27. superdestroyer says:

    @James Joyner:


    You live in the DC media market. Unless you can come up with something that would change the District of Columbia into a two-party city, then you should at least acknowledge that has the demographics of the U.S. becomes more like the demographic of DC, then it is very likely that the U.S. will be dominated by the Democratic Party. Detroit, Baltimore, DC, St Louis, and Chicago should be good enough examples to show that for many voters, the Democrats cannot screw up enough to lose the loses of virtually all non-white demographic groups.

    Also, as politics becomes about the entitlement state and how to fund it, there is no way to justify the existence of a conservative party. David Axelrod is way ahead of the Democrats in the push to make politics about increasing taxes on as small a group as possible while spreading around increased spending to as many people as possible. In such a political situation, a conservative party cannot survive.

    The questoin for 2016 is whether H. Clinton is the best candidate for being the tax collector for the welfare state or would some other candidate be better. Considering H. Clinton has never been a governor and was in the White House during an economic bubble, H. Clinton has no experience in dealing with a sluggish economy and shows no interest in the economic, demogrpahic, and cultural conditions that the U.S. faces in the future.

  28. Pat says:

    Hillary has nothing to gain by waiting to announce, period.

    If she’s in it to win it, the American people are ready for her where they may not have been sure in 2008. The extra time merely gives her a longer time for testing so that supporters or saboteurs have time to organize where they are already preparing.

    That is a good thing since no one ever became President by surprise except President George W. Bush by Supreme Court decision over Gore.

    She’s a woman and may need more time, rather than less.

    She will win for worthiness or not at all, and has little to lose.
    What’s the worst that can happen?

  29. george says:

    There is no 2016 version of Barack Obama out there. So, Clinton could have her campaign run by the tag team of Mark Penn, Bob Shrum, and Susan Estrich and win the nomination.

    Was anyone aware in 2005 that the 2008 version of Barack Obama was going to be a serious challenger for the Democratic nomination?

    As others (including yourself on many occaisions) have said many times, three years is a very long time in politics.

  30. James Joyner says:

    @george: Oh, absolutely. I’m not saying that Clinton is a lock to win the nomination. Rather, I’m saying she would have won in 2008, even with Mark Penn running the campaign, absent Obama’s unique appeal. And, yes, it was clear by 2004–when a mere state senator and US Senate candidate was selected to give the keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention–that Obama was something special.