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What Penn Got Right

Mark Penn makes a number of truly preposterous claims in his interview with GQ's Lisa DePaulo, one of which I'll get to in a second. But, for the moment, I'd just point out the one thing I think he got right. It has to do with the question of toughness versus humanity, which Penn touches on in this exchange:

Do you think we’d even be talking now if you hadn’t established her as capable of being commander in chief?
I think we wouldn’t have won any primaries anywhere if people didn’t feel comfortable with her being president.

And your polling showed that to be true?
Oh, absolutely. All polling showed that. All the exit polls. You look at the exit polls in New Hampshire, for example. The exit polls in New Hampshire showed that her readiness to be president, her ability to be commander in chief, were absolutely central to that vote. What I’ve always said was, it was about being strong and human. Right? People who wanted to emphasize the human qualities never had a strategy for her. They had a couple of random ideas.

Like put her mother on TV, okay? That’s not a strategy! [a little snort laugh] And I never opposed anything that would humanize her in addition. But to just run her as somebody—to say that the only thing that Hillary Clinton had to do to be president was to, you know, show some softness would have been a mistake. She would have gotten zero votes from men.

I agree with the Penn critics who say Hillary needed to show more of a human side. But I'd argue that she needed to show more of a human side only once she'd established herself as tough and up to the job. I don't think it would have served her well to build a campaign around "human" qualities from the get-go. (I doubt anyone was proposing to go quite that far, Penn's accusation notwithstanding. But certainly there were advisers willing to move too far in that direction, too quickly.)

The example I'd cite is New Hampshire. What made the choking up work for Hillary was the contrast with her iron-lady persona. People thought, "Oh, here's a tough woman who also has some very human emotions." If she hadn't first established her toughness, though, it would have made her the woman who cries under pressure, which is disastrous for a presidential candidate.

--Noam Scheiber