Once Again, Mark Penn Gets it Wrong

There is an editorial in this morning’s New York Times that is so full of shit, I had to comment.

It starts with a really bad headline. “Back to the Center, Democrats.” The reason I hate the headline is because it doesn’t match reality. This is actually par for the course by its primary author, Mark Penn. Mark tends to get politics wrong more often than not and he tends to see things in very simplistic terms.

Take this section of the article, for example:

In the early 1990s, the Democrats relied on identity politics, promoted equality of outcomes instead of equality of opportunity and looked to find a government solution for every problem. After years of leftward drift by the Democrats culminated in Republican control of the House under Speaker Newt Gingrich, President Bill Clinton moved the party back to the center in 1995 by supporting a balanced budget, welfare reform, a crime bill that called for providing 100,000 new police officers and a step-by-step approach to broadening health care. Mr. Clinton won a resounding re-election victory in 1996 and Democrats were back.

But the last few years of the Obama administration and the 2016 primary season once again created a rush to the left. Identity politics, class warfare and big government all made comebacks. Candidates inspired by Senator Bernie Sanders, Senator Elizabeth Warren and a host of well-funded groups have embraced sharply leftist ideas. But the results at the voting booth have been anything but positive: Democrats lost over 1,000 legislative seats across the country and control of both houses of Congress during the Obama years. And in special elections for Congress this year, they failed to take back any seats held by Republicans.

What the hell does that even mean? It’s almost as if he believes there is a single Democratic strategy for the entire country, which is ridiculous enough, but he also apparently thinks it would have worked the same in the “early 1990s” as it does now. That’s ridiculous. Bill Clinton didn’t move the Democratic Party “to the center,” he went where the votes were. And while, taking the country as a whole, would seem to be a “centrist” strategy, it’s not. The definition of “left,” “right” and “center” will all depend greatly on where you are in the country.

In other words, while the vast majority of voters lie somewhere in the middle, there is no actual “center,” politically and ideologically speaking. This is a mistake many pundits and political operatives make. Fully 80 percent of the electorate falls somewhere in the middle and these days, but almost no one in the political middle is Republican. That is because the far right dominates that party. But that’s another argument for another day.

The biggest mistake in the above is based on the motion that Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are somehow pulling the entire Democratic Party “to the left,” which is purely insane. It’s especially insane when you consider that Mark Penn is a former pollster, and he should know this. At no time was Bernie Sanders ever even within striking distance of Hillary Clinton in the primaries, despite the most fervent wishes of his most fervent followers. Hillary leaned to the left a bit, but that’s because that is where the Democratic votes are. Even though she all but ignored most caucus states, she won almost every primary – many of them by a wide margin – and she received a hefty 57 percent of the Democratic vote, which is a landslide in any other context, when the god Bernie isn’t involved. If she had participated more fully in the caucuses, she probably would have topped two-thirds of the vote. In what alternate universe have Bernie Sanders and his faction have taken control of anything? The answer is, it doesn’t. I think Mark Penn is paying too much attention to Cenk Uyger, who is another one without a clue.

The reason we have Trump in the White House and the reason Democrats have had a bit of a losing streak is because of low turnout. It’s not because the GOP is overwhelmingly popular, it’s because we have a phenomenon where some extremely loud people on the left have somehow decided that beating up on Democrats for imagined wrongs is somehow more politically expedient than beating up on Republicans for their actual sins. This is why Democrats lose; it has nothing to do with “aiming for the center” or some other nonsense, it has to do with the far left message sounding too much like the right’s message and confusing the shit out of people.

In fact, I’ll go farther. if you think this electorate voted for Donald J. Trump based on “the issues,” you are a stone lunatic. What then hell did Hillary Clinton and Democrats even get to talk about issues? I’d also point out that Hillary WON the popular vote and Democrats GAINED seats almost everywhere. In other words, Mark Penn is assuming last year was part of the losing streak and it’s not. The biggest problem we have is blowing off midterms, which Penn does here, too.

Seriously, what does “Back to the Center” mean, anyway? Will moving “back to the center” help Maxine Waters and Nancy Pelosi win their districts?  Will moving “back to the center” help Joe Manchin or Claire McCaskill win their elections in West Virginia and Missouri, respectively? Of course not. There is actually no “center,” which is why i laugh at professional lefties who use the term. “centrist” as a pejorative. It is possible to move universal healthcare or even the war on climate change into the mainstream; we just don’t do the work necessary to do so. So, what happens when, I dunno, “single payer” becomes a mainstream idea; does it suddenly become suspect because it occupies what many view as “the center”? And if it does occupy the center, will pundits like Penn reject it?

Frankly, the way this article reads, it seems like Mark Penn is advocating to returning the Democratic Party to white people. And frankly, a lot of his rhetoric is pretty far right-leaning. It’s reminiscent of the old DLC playbook. Apparently, he believes that embracing right wing rhetoric is the key to Democrats winning. Check these out.

(Democrats) need to reject socialist ideas and adopt an agenda of renewed growth, greater protection for American workers and a return to fiscal responsibility…

Reject socialist ideas? Except for universal healthcare, which has to be socialized in some ways to work, when have Democrats as a party championed socialism as an ideology? In fact, the main complaint Bernie hardcores have with the Democratic Party is that it’s not socialist enough. And since when have Democrats not championed greater protection for the American worker and greater fiscal responsibility? Penn’s hero, Bill Clinton, is the first president since LBJ to oversee a balanced budget and he and Obama both reined in the GOP’s runaway deficits. As for growth, under both Obama and Clinton and during the only two periods in the last 40 years in which Democrats controlled the federal government, they engineered remarkable growth. The reason they lost had to do with the far left’s constant trashing of Democrats. You know, the same people Penn is now claiming have taken over the Party, Svengali-like.

While the old brick-and-mortar economy is being regulated to death, the new tech-driven economy has been given a pass to flout labor laws with unregulated, low-paying gig jobs, to concentrate vast profits and to decimate retailing

Regulated to death? If that’s not a right wing complaint, I don’t know what is. Since 1981, Democrats have controlled the federal government from 1993-1994 and 2009-2010. Republicans’ DE-regulation caused the housing crisis and the stock market crash and Democrats re-regulated the financial services industry, but that’s about it. In fact, Clinton and Obama BOTH took the initiative to get rid of as many unnecessary regulations as possible. So, where are these regulations coming from? The descent of brick-and-mortar retail can be compared to the coming of the “horseless carriage.”

First of all, these traditional retailers represent very few companies, most of which are chains which decimated many communities many years ago. Where were people like Mark Penn when Walmart was opening huge stores on the outskirts of small towns and using predatory pricing to put all mom-and-pop retailers out of business?  What is happening now is due to the arc of technology. By the way, the way tech companies treat gig workers isn’t as bad as Penn states.

This one was my favorite, though:

Rural areas have been left without adequate broadband and with shrinking opportunities. The opioid crisis has spiraled out of control, killing tens of thousands, while pardons have been given to so-called nonviolent drug offenders. Repairing and expanding infrastructure, a classic Democratic issue, has been hijacked by President Trump — meaning Democrats have a chance to reach across the aisle to show they understand that voters like bipartisanship.

Again, Mark Penn demonstrates that he doesn’t understand the problem. Democrats always reach across the aisle. Hillary Clinton was the master of that, as was Barack Obama. But every time they reach across the aisle, they get slapped down by the far left AND Republicans. And people like Mark Penn, who imagine there is such a demographic as “the center,” and apparently advocate for positions that don’t declare a position.

There is a reason the DLC is dead, folks. It’s because they didn’t advocate for anything that anyone gave a shit about. This is an obvious attempt to revive that relic and make sure Democrats don’t stand for anything, so no one can be offended. That’s absurd. By the way, the DLC only had two “successes” to speak of. Bill Clinton won twice, against two of the weakest candidates the GOP ever ran. Throughout most of the DLC’s stewardship of the Democratic Party, the GOP won more than they lost.

If you think I’m being hard on Penn, look at his last paragraph:

Americans are looking for can-do Democrats in the mold of John F. Kennedy and Bill Clinton — leaders who rose above partisanship to unify the country, who defended human rights and equality passionately, and who also encouraged economic growth and rising wages. That is the road back to relevance, and the White House, for the Democrats.

First of all, JFK barely beat the odious Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton never got a majority of the vote. Of course, both of those were different eras, and are not relative in the age of the radical Republican. Clinton didn’t “unify the country,” he was forced to first shame, then give in to, Republicans on many important issues. That’s because the far left targeted Democrats – again – because they didn’t make massive changes in two years and that resulted in Republicans taking both the House and the Senate for the first time in 40 years.  He didn’t straddle the “center,” he gave Republicans what they wanted on welfare and the media consolidation, among other things.

As for that last line, well…

Democrats are “relevant” to most people. What Mark Penn is saying is that Democrats are no longer as relevant to WHITE PEOPLE as they once were. People of Color, Latinos, immigrants, the poor and LGBT folks all support Democrats wholeheartedly and fully. The only demographic that does NOT support Democrats fully are white people, mostly male and who are mostly well off.

In other words, like the DLC before him, Mark Penn is essentially asking that Democrats give up on its base and try to attract white men again.

The answer is no, Mark.

About Milt Shook

A writer with 40 years in the political game (and let's face it, it is a game). I am a liberal because facts have a liberal bias, and I really like facts. If you like facts, you'll like this blog. If not, you'll have a hard time.


Once Again, Mark Penn Gets it Wrong — 2 Comments

  1. This Mark Penn piece gave anti-DNC and anti-Clinton so-called progressives much fodder and this article almost seems like a plant to sow further divides in the Party that I am beginning to think are being created and encouraged by the MSM and progressive extremists. Yesterday I saw quite a few comments on DK ripping Bill Clinton, the entire Democratic Party, and even promoting splitting up the Party. Last week there was a entire diary and copious comments stating why not to support or donate to the DNC or the DCCC because they “lose elections” and are part of the “establishment”. This is all the progressives can come up with while Trump and the Republicans are destroying our country in an unprecedented manner? Why don’t they just go work for the Republicans because the progressives are doing a good job helping the Right out. Milt, you are one of the few honest voices of reason and I feel you truly speak for Liberal Democrats and I appreciate your work.

    If the Democrats don’t start to deal with the destructive progressives who at every opportunity (like this one with the reaction to the Mark Penn piece) rip the Party we are really lost. While like you, I disagree with Mark Penn, I read it and thought O.K. not helpful. What did some progressives do? Used it as another excuse to bash the Democratic Party. The Penn article, as you pointed out was flawed but not for the same reasons as progressives reacted so negatively.

    The progressives on sites like DK used the unhelpful article as an excuse to create even more discord. Why can’t there be discussions about the future of the Party without smearing Bill Clinton and all Democrats (including Obama) who are not Bernie Sanders? Members of the Republican Party do not, years after their Presidents have left office, spend time destroying the reputations of their former Republican Presidents. As bad as they were they beatify them! Ronald Reagan is almost a saint to Republicans. No one bothers with the 2 Bushes. But go on some progressive websites and you would think Bill Clinton just left office and all the ills we have experienced in this country are his fault…..And Debbie Wassermann Schultz and Nancy Pelosi and even Obama gets hit sometimes and anyone else who is not Bernie Sanders approved. We have a big problem here.

    Sure the Democratic Party could use some tweaking but so do all organizations at some point, not only political parties. That is how we grow and become stronger, not by destroying the organization. My apologies for the long comment. Thank you again for your good work. I feel you are like the ancient prophets who had the true vision of what was going on in their world and those who failed to listen suffered the consequences. Too much is at stake here and the ones who are going to blow it are not the Mark Penns but are the progressives who can not see beyond their own noses and who only listen to their own noise.

    The crazy thing is, is that some progressives promote the same crap as Mark Penn in his misguided article regarding those lost white male voters and that the Democratic Party has “no message”. Bullshit. Hillary Clinton had workable plans that would have benefited ALL Americans and her message was loud and clear. Some just chose to ignore her and what she had to say. Perhaps you will disagree with my comments but thank you for giving your readers a place to respond to your posts.

  2. The opioid addiction tragedy vs pardons to “so-called ” nonviolent offenders also sounds like a huge dog whistle, suggesting President Obama let white people suffer while he was busy letting people of color out of jail. And of course those POCs can’t possibly be nonviolent…