The liberal mood today is very much like that of Jimmy Stewart at the beginning of It’s A Wonderful Life. The economy stinks, nothing in our life is going right, and that special person turns out not to be so special after all. One odd, recurring strand of the current liberal funk is a pining away for Hillary Clinton. More than one down-in-the-dumps liberal has expressed the stray thought that, if only Democrats had nominated that other candidate, she’d surely have stood up to those Republicans, rolled up her sleeves, and pushed through a populist economic agenda. Maybe, they should just hurl this presidency over the bridge
As it happens, like Jimmy Stewart, we have a guardian angel to show us the folly of this choice. His name is Mark Penn. As Clinton’s chief political advisor, Penn’s career has been characterized by two traits, neither recommending him to the role of political architect of a liberal alternate-fantasy administration. Penn is a fervent proponent of the belief that Democrats must abhor economic populism, or even moderate economic liberalism, and embrace small-government nostrums. Second, he habitually runs roughshod over any data that stands in the way of him urging his preferred vision.
Penn has a regular column in the Huffington Post, in which he treats readers to a glimpse of the strategic thinking that he would have brought to bear under a Hillary Clinton administration. Unlike Clarence the angel, Penn is not consciously setting about to show us the horrifying consequences of this alternative path. That, however, is precisely the effect. So Penn has spent the Obama administration urging Obama to pivot to deficit reduction and give up on health-care reform.
Penn’s idée fixe is that the Democratic Party’s fate hinges upon currying favor with the rich. His latest column consists of him, naturally, expressing deep horror at Obama’s proposals to raise taxes on the affluent as part of a long-term deficit-reduction plan, which he decries as “class warfare.” Penn uses the column to set out his version of modern political history, in which the Democratic Party’s political fortunes rise in direct proportion to their disavowal of the horrors of class warfare. Penn goes through this odd version of history in non-chronological order. Let us go through it with him:
When Al Gore faced a close presidential race in 2000, he abandoned running on peace and prosperity in favor of the people vs. the powerful, only to see his lead evaporate.
Penn, in keeping with his normal methods, offers no data to back up this claim. And no wonder! In 2000, Gore famously gave a “people versus the powerful” speech at the Democratic National Convention, and he erased a massive George W. Bush polling lead almost overnight:
Gore’s lead subsequently declined later in the fall when the press corps suddenly embraced the story that Gore was a congenital liar, in contrast with his plainspoken, honest opponent. The portion of the campaign decried by Penn is, objectively, the only period of the campaign in which Gore gained ground.
Penn tells the same story about the previous campaign:
But when Bill Clinton was facing the fight of his political life in his 1996 re-election, he got rid of all the class warfare language used by traditional Democrats, got behind welfare reform and the balanced budget, and supported a strong, activist government that spent and taxed less rather than more. As a result, Clinton trounced the Republican nominee and was the first Democrat to serve a full eight years since Roosevelt.
In fact, Clinton raised taxes on the rich in 1993. It’s true that he did not emphasize this during the reelection campaign, but it’s not true that he won reelection “as a result” of not talking about that. Clinton won reelection because he was an incumbent presiding over peace and prosperity.
Naturally, Penn attributes the midterm debacle to class warfare as well:
The 2010 mid-term elections were fought over Obama's healthcare plan and on his plan to raise taxes on the wealthy by ending the Bush tax cuts. The results were, in his own words, a "shellacking."
It’s true that Obama, in 2010, advocated phasing out the Bush tax cuts on income over $250,000. But he favored that in 2008, too! How could this possibly explain the altered landscape?
Speaking of which, here’s Penn on 2008:
What was so brilliant about the Obama 2008 election was that it brought together the upper and lower classes in a common mission of hope and change. Today, he is smashing apart that coalition with policies that seem to be about expanding the scope of government by the trillions of dollars (starting with health care) and raising taxes.
Again, no recognition, let alone explanation, that Obama ran on middle-class tax cuts and tax hikes on income over $250,000, just as Bill Clinton did in 1992.
Penn concludes, “America wants to see the president focused on stimulating jobs and innovation, not on raising taxes in a near recession.” In fact, Obama is not proposing to raise taxes on the rich until after the recession ends. And higher taxes on the rich is extremely popular.
The most alarming thing about Penn is not just his values but his abhorrence of data. He will not allow himself to be confused by the facts, or anything that complicates his ideological predilections. I can certainly see why there would be people wishing this man was crafting the agenda of the Democratic president right now. I don’t understand why those people would be liberals.
Strategy Corner: Obama — Don't Bring Back Class Warfare [HuffPo]