Mark Penn's Bad Column Also Makes No Goddamn Sense

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The New York Times today presents this opinion column by charmless grifter Mark Penn, a longtime pollster and public relations expert who has extensively worked with the Clintons, on how the Democratic Party can reverse its recent electoral losses. Penn’s prescription is, for anyone who has ever read a Mark Penn column on what the Democratic Party should do, predictable: They should make it 1996 again through science or magic, and become more conservative.

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.

Penn’s co-author is Andrew Stein, a former Democratic New York City politician who has not held any elected office since 1994; who was convicted of tax evasion for using laundered money supplied to him by Ponzi schemer Kenneth Starr to fund his extravagant lifestyle; who was married for years to Lynn Forester de Rothschild, of those Rothschilds, a legendary political idiot who fervently supported Hillary Clinton but hated Barack Obama because his proposal to raise the top marginal tax rate was Marxism; who then briefly dated Ann Coulter; and who, finally, endorsed Donald Trump in 2016.

I present Stein’s biography mainly to emphasize how much the decision to publish this op-ed represents contempt for the Times reader. Andrew Stein is not a vital or interesting political voice in the year 2017, and his history—personal, electoral, and criminal—does not suggest someone with any relevant ideas for strengthening the national position of the Democratic Party. He is a has-been in New York and a non-entity nationally. Guys like this exist solely to appear on Fox News panels as Democrats who detest liberals, and to make quadrennial appearances on the opinion pages of the Wall Street Journal as Democrats who have decided to endorse the Republican presidential candidate. The conservative Wall Street Journal has a pretty obvious and transparent reason for wanting that kind of content. What possible reason does the Times have for wanting this?


These are the questions that the reader of this column is forced to ask. Who is the audience for this? What is the point of this? Why publish it?

Most of the column is so obvious in its wrongness that it’s tiresome to even point out the faulty reasoning, the mendacious misreading of recent history, and the incoherent policy vision. The narrative that Bill Clinton won reelection in 1996 because of his lurch to the right, and not because he was an incumbent president during a period of rising employment and wages, is trotted out for the ten millionth time. The lessons of Hillary Clinton’s 2008 loss in the Democratic primaries, which Penn was more responsible for than anyone not named Obama, are ignored.


Mark Penn has been writing variations on this column for years, and he has shown time and time again that his political instincts are worthless. Barack Obama was a two-term president in large part because his campaign team operated on the principle that they ought to do whatever the opposite of what Mark Penn, or someone like him, would do.

To give him some credit, though, Penn reaches new heights of political incoherence in this particular piece. Everyone’s been dunking on it all day, but people have barely scratched the surface of how odd and contradictory Penn’s “advice” is. His central premise is that Democrats have gone too far to the left, and must become more centrist to win—ok, sure, an old standard, hum a few bars and we can play along—but his categories of “centrist” and “left” (and “liberal”) no longer make any sort of sense.


One (repellent) thread is that Democrats must cast off immigrants and people of color, which is pretty routine anti-liberalism. He calls out “identity politics, class warfare and big government” as bad things that must be avoided. Sure. But look at the rest of this:

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. 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, on first glance, this looks like standard-issue amoral centrism—your insistence on recognizing the human rights of transgendered people is bad politics, Democrats!—but let’s get back to “moderate positions on trade” and “restoring manufacturing jobs.”

There are plenty of good issues Democrats should be championing. They need to reject socialist ideas and adopt an agenda of renewed growth, greater protection for American workers and a return to fiscal responsibility. 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. 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.


Democrats need to abandon socialism and... regulate the tech industry more?And invest in rural broadband? Repairing and expanding infrastructure is indeed a “classic Democratic issue”—it is also the definition of “big government,” in that it tends to involve the government spending a lot of money employing people to make public goods.

Then, this:

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.


And now the man who is still taking credit for winning the 1996 presidential election by inventing “triangulation” has just revealed that the “moderate position on trade” that he is calling for Democrats to return to is a rejection of “free trade,” in favor of “fair trade.” Penn is taking the Bernie Sanders (and Sherrod Brown) position on trade and branding it as the centrist side of the argument, against the failed liberalism of... Bill Clinton.

Penn’s actual agenda, as presented here, is basically to promise what Donald Trump promised during the election, before he put actual Republicans in charge of his entire government: A crueler carceral state, a complete abandonment of advocacy for marginalized people, symbolic hippie-punching against the campus left, and, most importantly, massive giveaways and big government spending to support “working class” whites. The punchline is that Penn’s “centrist” agenda is, effectively, the liberal bad-faith caricature of the supposed Sanders agenda—pursue the white “working class” with economic populism and abandon “identity politics,” meaning mainly the needs and preferences of people of color. The only person in the Democratic Party actually advocating that strategy, it turns out, is one of its most prominent Clintonian centrists.


Obama speechwriter Jon Favreau says “zero Democrats who matter care about what Mark Penn says or does”, and he is probably right in a narrow sense—no smart candidate will ever hire him for campaign work ever again, meaning Penn is now and forevermore on the lookout for exceptionally rich and exceptionally dumb candidates—but Penn is not quite as in-the-wilderness as that makes it seem.


In 2015, Penn’s private equity firm purchased SKDKnickerbocker, one of the most influential and well-connected messaging and political consulting firms in Democratic politics, giving Penn control over a firm full of former Obama administration and campaign figures, which will work on countless Democratic campaigns in the future.

The firm currently specializes in the more lucrative business of unregistered, off-label lobbying, through “messaging campaigns” for corporate and industry group clients, generally aimed at regulators and elected officials, including the current president (all of this, obviously, is undisclosed by the Times, which refers to Penn solely as a former pollster).


Mark Penn’s grift will never end.