Clinton: Strategy Redux

By Jackie Cushman

September 22, 2016 5 min read

In August 2009, The Atlantic published a strategy memo crafted by Mark Penn, Hillary Clinton's chief political strategist for the 2008 primary.

The memo had been written in March of 2007, at the beginning of the primary, when Clinton was polling at 39 percent for the Democratic nomination, followed by Barack Obama at 25 percent, with former U.S. Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina trailing with 11 percent.

Her nomination seemed inevitable to many.

Many in the news media singled out Obama as the only real challenger to Clinton and the memo focused on how she should win the nomination. It covered the normal scope of topics for campaign strategy documents: "situation," "what holds him up," "what could hold him back," "how is the environment," "so what do we do," "overall strategy for winning," "positioning," and "so how do we win."

What's intriguing in rereading the missive is how much of Clinton's current campaign reflects the strategy laid out nine years ago by Penn.

Under the category of what could hold him (Obama) back, three of the four items Penn lists are categories that the Clinton campaign uses on Trump. They are "lack of experience," "removed for working man/woman," and "phony."

In contrast to Clinton's current embrace of Obama, the fourth item listed as an attribute that could hold Obama back was "lack of American roots." The memo stated, "I cannot imagine American electing a president during a time of war who is not at his center fundamentally American in his thinking and his values."

Wow, was Penn wrong. America did.

The 2007 memo notes how to frame the situation to take advantage of Clinton's experience in politics. "It is a complex and dangerous world out there. It is perhaps the most precarious international situation since the start of WWII, with hidden enemies and fractured allies. It is an economy reeling from uncertain global competition. This is no time for rookies. No time for rhetoric. It is a time for experienced leadership that can get results. This is who I am and what I have to offer."

This approach did not work in 2008, and does not appear to be working in 2012. But Clinton continues to lay out this same argument.

Last Monday, after the bombings in New Jersey and New York, she laid out her case this time. "I am the only candidate in this race who has been part of the hard decisions to take terrorists off the battlefield."

She may have been part of the decision, but it leads voters to wonder why we are still dealing with so many issues that have not been resolved.

Penn goes on in the memo to talk about Clinton's position in the race for the Democratic nomination. "The modern buzz word is that it is not about politics but positioning. This of course is Obama's territory. He is all sizzle and no steak. And he wants to convince everyone that's all you need... Our positioning: experienced leadership you can count on, someone who can break barriers for you."

Clinton must regret the "all sizzle and no steak" reference — but what is written cannot be erased.

Nine years later, Clinton is using the same basic positioning. Her message — I've been there, I will be your champion, I will work on your behalf.

Penn wraps up the positioning portion stating that, "Hillary is the person we turn to because we need someone to stand up for us. Someone who has the smarts and strength to get it done. This is a dangerous, uncertain, complex world, and Hillary knows how people have been ignored... This is no time for rookies. she will see what needs to be seen, do what needs to be done. She will do it because she knows what to do. She may not be a new face, but she will give this country a new start."

The focus on experience and breaking barriers is still part of her campaign. The challenge Clinton has is that the strategy that did not work eight years ago does not appear to be working today. Additionally, the bedrock belief by Penn that she brings the "smarts and strength" to get it done are being challenged by her collapse on September 11, due to pneumonia, and her lapses in memory and her bad decisions regarding her use of a private email server while she was serving as secretary of state.

Clinton's strategy did not secure the Democratic nomination for her in 2008. In less than 50 days, we will find out if this same strategy serves her better in 2016.

To find out more about Jackie Gingrich Cushman, and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit

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