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Hillary Clinton advisor talks free trade with Colombians

April 4, 2008 |  7:46 am

Mark Penn, a top strategist and mouthpiece for Hillary Clinton, makes his real money as a wheeler-dealer for Burson-Marsteller Worldwide, the international PR and crisis-management firm. And apparently while wearing that better-paying hat Penn found himself way off the Clinton message Monday as he talked with the Colombian ambassador about a bilateral free-trade agreement that Clinton opposes.

Remember, the Clinton campaign milked reports of conversations between one of Barack Obama's advisors and Canadian officials in the run-up to the Ohio primary, where trade issues are local issues. The issue then was more pointed -- did the Obama advisor tell the Canadians that the candidate's opposition to NAFTA was all smoke, little flame? -- and it helped Clinton stave off an Obama rally in Ohio.

At this point no one knows what Penn told the ambassador -- the lobbying firm has a contract with Colombia to represent it before Congress on the trade deal, the Wall Street Journal reports. The campaign insists that Penn wasn't at the meeting as an advisor to Clinton, who has said she opposes any more free trade agreements until national trade policy establishes protections for workers and other safeguards (and as a sitting U.S. senator, she presumably will have to take a formal position on the measure).

At a deeper level, Penn's dual roles are politically problematic because they point up one of the recurring complaints about how Washington works -- the revolving door between the regulators and the regulated, and between those who lobby and those who govern.

One has to assume that a Clinton presidency would mean a nicely appointed West Wing office for Penn if he wanted it, so what we have here is less a revolving door than a single room with two desks. Penn is advising a client about a trade agreement it wants; Penn is bending the ear of a presidential contender who doesn't want the trade agreement. Beyond being an invitation to skepticism, that conflict plays into Obama's theme that Clinton is too cozy with the D.C. establishment to effect change.

And more broadly, it points up that "experience" sometimes comes with baggage.

-- Scott Martelle