Why Mark Penn is Wrong
Once again, there is yet another postmortem piece in a mainstream publication bemoaning what went wrong for the Democratic Party in 2016 and how it should go about rebuilding itself.
The latest in this series of takes was a New York Times op-ed by Mark Penn, a former pollster and advisor to Bill and Hillary Clinton, and Andrew Stein, a former New York City politician and Democrat-turned-Trump supporter.
In short, the article is full of 1990s nostalgia, mischaracterizations of the contemporary political climate, a-historic nonsense, straw men & bad-faith criticisms.
Below, I will run through some of the more problematic claims made in the article.
“The path back to power for the Democratic Party today, as it was in the 1990s, is to move to the center and reject the siren calls of the left, whose policies and ideas have weakened the party.”
Right away, the authors assume the current political, economic and social environment is roughly equivalent to the 1990s. Second, the party is framed as left-wing instead of center-left. Keep these assumptions in mind as we continue through the article.
“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.”
The identification of “identity politics, promoted equality of outcomes instead of equality of opportunity and looked to find a government solution for every problem” function as straw men. Firstly, the authors assume identity politics is exclusive to the progressive wing of the party, and not also present within the Republican Party. It also pushes the idea that interests of racial and ethnic minorities, women and LGBTs were, are and should continue to be unimportant and secondary.
Secondly, “Promoted equality of outcomes instead of equality of opportunity and looked to find a government solution for every problem” are complete mischaracterizations of the party’s historical platform, which have been echoed by conservative activists and media for almost 40 years.
“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.”
The authors are correct in that Bill Clinton pushed the party right following the 1994 midterm debacle. The policy shift here was mostly for political expediency and a proper understanding of the political environment of the decade. It also fails to mention that Clinton’s reelection effort benefited enormously from the prosperous economy of the 90s. Furthermore, this passage fails to understand the real, negative effects of those policies on actual people.
“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.”
Again, listing “identity politics, class warfare and big government” are straw men that today only have resonance among right-wing activists, Republican primary voters, and on Fox News and talk radio.
Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren pushed the party to the left, though their policies are in line with the traditional Democratic platform articulated by FDR and Lyndon Johnson. They are progressive but by no means “leftist.” Also, the left wing of the party may certainly be well funded, but this is through individual donations (a la Bernie’s famous $27 average donation), not the corporate donors of the party’s mainstream and the GOP.
“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.”
There are many reasons why Democrats lost control of Congress and state legislatures during the Obama era, though the party moving to the left is not one of them. Low turnout in 2010 and 2014, the shuttering of Obama’s Organizing for America, uninspiring candidates, a lack of clear policy agenda, partisan redistricting and an energized conservative movement are all much better explanations.
“Central to the Democrats’ diminishment has been their loss of support among working-class voters, who feel abandoned by the party’s shift away from moderate positions on trade and immigration, from backing police and tough anti-crime measures, from trying to restore manufacturing jobs.”
The first mistake here is cynically associating the working class with conservative, rural white voters. The claim that the party shifted away from moderate positions on trade is just ahistorical. Bill Clinton’s embrace of NAFTA indicates the party’s shift to the center — a shift away from the left that the Trump campaign used to win over working-class voters in the Upper Midwest. I would argue the Democrats’ growing unpopularity with the working-class has more to do with the party’s embrace of the donor class.
Furthermore, the party’s more progressive positions on immigration and criminal justice issues certainly do not resonate with many in the white working class, yet going to the center on those issues would mean abandoning the party’s core values & supporters.
“They saw the party being mired too often in political correctness, transgender bathroom issues and policies offering more help to undocumented immigrants than to the heartland.”
Again, all of these are standard Republican talking points that mostly hold sway with the conservative base, not the country more broadly. The transgender bathroom issue, in particular, has been used as a wedge issue in the fevered scaremongering on the right, not the left. In fact, the issue doomed former North Carolina Republican Governor Pat McCrory in the state’s recent gubernatorial election.
“Today, identity politics and disdain for religion are creating a new social divide that the Democrats need to bridge by embracing free speech on college campuses and respect for Catholics and people of other faiths who feel marginalized within the party.”
What exactly is meant by “disdain for religion?” Support for LGBT equality and a woman’s right to choose? This again presupposes that Democrats should cynically betray their core values on the incredibly small chance that evangelical voters will move away from their natural home in the GOP.
The authors bring up free speech on college campuses as yet another straw man that again only riles up conservative activists. I’m not sure which prominent Democrats are actively against free speech on campus, but oh well.
“They need to reject socialist ideas and adopt an agenda of renewed growth, greater protection for American workers and a return to fiscal responsibility.”
When did the Democrats adopt socialist ideas? Again, only in the fevered dreams of Fox News. Alas, “greater protection for workers” sure sounds left-wing to me. Furthermore, fiscal responsibility sounds good in theory but if it means Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid are on the chopping block, most Americans would balk at it.
“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.”
Here is where things start to get confusing. They complain about overregulation only to complain about the lack of regulation of the tech industry in the next clause — a critique offered by leftists and progressives against companies like Uber.
“Rural areas have been left without adequate broadband and with shrinking opportunities.”
Again, this is another left-wing criticism of the lack of infrastructure funding and development in rural America. You would be hard-pressed to find centrists as vocally committed to fixing this issue.
“The opioid crisis has spiraled out of control, killing tens of thousands, while pardons have been given to so-called nonviolent drug offenders.”
I’m not sure how pardoning nonviolent drug offenders connects to the lack of solutions to the opioid crisis. Again, the progressive wing of the party is able to simultaneously oppose the AHCA, which would devastate communities affected by the opioid crisis, and support releasing nonviolent drug offenders from prison.
“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.”
This assumes that left-wing Democrats have abandoned support for massive infrastructure investment. It remains to be seen how much the Trump administration actually pushes for a $1 trillion infrastructure plan that isn’t a giveaway to corporations. More likely that was just a silly campaign promise.
“Immigration is also ripe for a solution from the center. Washington should restore the sanctity of America’s borders, create a path to work permits and possibly citizenship, and give up on both building walls and defending sanctuary cities.”
This sounds exactly like the immigration platform Obama campaigned on and attempted to push through. The authors also make a false equivalency between building a border wall and defending sanctuary cities. Obama deported more than 2 million people, and he still did not come close to appeasing the anti-immigration wing of the GOP.
“On trade, Democrats should recognize that they can no longer simultaneously try to be the free-trade party and speak for the working class. They need to support fair trade and oppose manufacturing plants’ moving jobs overseas, by imposing new taxes on such transfers while allowing repatriation of foreign profits.”
Once again, the authors are confused about exactly what a centrist policy is. Here, they put forth an incredibly progressive policy proposal on trade that is supported by Sanders and his supporters. This is a policy that would undoubtedly meet intense opposition from party leaders and the donor class.
“Health care is the one area where the Democrats have gained the upper hand and have a coherent message about protecting the working poor from losing coverage. But the Affordable Care Act needs to be adjusted to control costs better, lest employer-sponsored health care become unaffordable. For now, the Democrats are right to hold the line in defending Obamacare in the face of Republican disunity.”
Interesting that the only time the authors praise the Democrats is for enacting a conservative policy first drafted by the Heritage Foundation. It briefly mentions some of the limitations of the ACA but neglects to articulate that a Medicare for All platform is what the base wants and is now popular nationally.
“Easily lost in today’s divided politics is that only a little more than a quarter of Americans consider themselves liberals, while almost three in four are self-identified moderates or conservatives.”
This is true but mostly a result of a PR campaign 40 years in the making to turn “liberal” into an insult. They also intentionally forget to say that individual “progressive” policies are, in fact, quite popular with most Americans.
“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.”
Interesting that Roosevelt and Johnson are not praised as “can-do Democrats” when those two presidents achieved many significant policy objectives, all while pushing the party to the left.
The conclusion of this NYT op-ed entirely functions as a hagiography of the Clinton presidency by entirely misrepresenting the actual realities of the era. “Rose above partisanship to unify the country?” Clinton’s move to the center certainly did not make Republicans any less hostile to him as they pursued a partisan impeachment effort. “Defended human rights and equality passionately?” Certainly not when it came to mass incarceration. “Encouraged economic growth and rising wages?” Perhaps, but not without pursuing an agenda of deregulation and spending cuts.
This article, in addition to its inaccurate reading of past history, makes a crucial error: it misunderstands how elections are won. Elections are not won by appealing to the center but by mobilizing a party’s base. In winning two elections, Barack Obama understood that by getting the Democratic coalition to turn out. The Obama campaign succeeded by turning out young people, Latinos, African Americans, women, and white working-class voters in states like Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania (all of which voted for Trump in the last election). Republicans have understood the same concept as the party mobilized its conservative base in three of the last four election cycles, gaining majorities in Congress and controlling at least one branch of government in 44 states.
Lurching to the center is one important factor that doomed Hillary Clinton in her 2008 and 2016 campaigns. Democrats must ignore suggestions to bargain away their core values and supporters in fruitless pursuit of moderate suburbanites.