Hillary’s chief strategist Mark Penn has left the building

More shake-ups in the higher echelons of the Clinton campaign:

ALBUQUERQUE, April 6 — Mark J. Penn quit Sunday as Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s chief strategist, the second shake-up in her campaign’s top ranks since the onetime front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination began trailing Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.).

Penn had been a polarizing figure within the Clinton campaign for months because of his personality as well as his strategic vision, but his departure came as a result of another continuing controversy — the conflicts of interest that resulted from his representing major clients as president of Burson-Marsteller, the giant public relations firm, while working for Clinton.

Last week, the Wall Street Journal reported that Penn had met with Colombia’s ambassador to the United States to discuss promotion of a free-trade agreement, one that Clinton opposes. Penn apologized Friday for an “error in judgment,” and the Colombian government responded a day later by firing Burson-Marsteller.

Clinton and her husband, Bill Clinton, were furious with Penn for going to the meeting, campaign officials said. Trade has been a divisive issue in the Democratic race and a particularly significant one in Pennsylvania, the next state on the primary calendar. The senator from New York has pledged to take a “timeout” from free-trade agreements until their impact on the United States becomes clearer.

“After the events of the last few days, Mark Penn has asked to give up his role as chief strategist of the Clinton campaign,” campaign manager Maggie Williams said in a statement. “Geoff Garin and Howard Wolfson will coordinate the campaign’s strategic message team going forward.”

This comes two months after the departure of Clinton’s (now former) campaign manager Patti Solis Doyle, who was replaced by Maggie Williams, a long time Clinton confidante, who is infamous in conservative circles for her close ties to former Clinton money man and convicted felon Johnny Chung, as well as her role in helping “clean out” Vince Foster’s office hours after his suicide.

HuffPo writer Dylan Loewe says it’s about time:

Penn presided over a top-down campaign in which, to the surprise of most observers, he was responsible for both crafting the message and polling its effectiveness. Normally frowned upon, such an approach often leads to self-fulfilling polling that validates the assumptions of the strategist, rather than providing an objective assessment. Perhaps that is the best explanation for a series of horribly misguided message strategies that Penn employed.

There was the now infamous inevitability argument, a message that ramped expectations to heights that Clinton could never have expected to meet. There was the change vs. experience message, one that helped validate Obama’s persona as the change candidate. And of course, when times got tough, there was the “Let’s get real” message. Showing a clear sign that the campaign did not understand its opponent, this message criticized Obama supporters rather than Obama himself, driving the wedge further between the candidate and the voters she needed to persuade.

But Penn chose not to confine his incompetence strictly to messaging, allowing it to invade all parts of the campaign strategy. His decision to forego caucus states demonstrated a glaring misunderstanding of the delegate allocation process. In a system in which losses must be minimized and wins inflated, Penn surrendered essential turf. It is equally surprising that someone who perceived his candidate as having enormous weaknesses in caucuses would have steered the campaign directly into the Iowa caucus. Had Deputy Campaign Manager Mike Henry’s recommendation been adopted — that Clinton forego Iowa — she may well have earned the nomination months ago.

As a chief strategist, Penn consistently proved to be a disappointing spokesperson. His mannerisms and tone on television suggest an abiding arrogance; he is often described as unsavory and unpleasant. While on Hardball, he was chastised by Joe Trippi for invoking the word “cocaine” while talking about Senator Obama. When paired with Obama strategist David Axelrod, Penn seemed unable to control his disdain.

Even when he wasn’t speaking for the campaign, he too often found himself at the center of the story. Private infighting with staff was often public and unprofessional, with uncomfortable details making front page news on multiple occasions.

Whatever. The bottom line is that when you’ve got problems with top ranking officials in your campaign at this stage of the game, I think it’s pretty safe to say that your campaign is in big trouble, not that it hasn’t been obvious before now as far as the Hillary campaign is concerned.

Anyone else out there thinking what I’m thinking, in that the Dem convention has the strong potential to be bruising and brutal, especially considering that neither Hillary nor Obama will be able to win the nomination without the help of the superdelegates? DNC Chair Howie Dean is out there calling for party unity, but with Hillary continuing her calls for seating the Florida and Michigan delegates and vowing to take the fight to seat them all the way to the convention, this one could possibly make the 1968 DNC look like an episode of Mr. Rogers by comparison.

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