Why Democrats Really Won the 1996 Election

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The Clinton-Gore campaign of 1996 wasn’t just about “moving to the center,” as Mark Penn characterizes it. Democrats that year were the “resistance” to the 1994 Republican revolution. Photo: Erik Freeland/Corbis via Getty Images

Unlike many left-of-center commentators, I do not automatically begin to froth at the mouth when the name Mark Penn comes up. That is a rare posture, as evidenced by the reaction of Charles Pierce of Esquire, a writer I greatly admire, to a New York Times op-ed from Penn and Andrew Stein calling on Democrats to move “back to the center.”

If this guy gets within 10 city blocks of your campaign headquarters, call the local hazardous waste unit immediately. Call the guys who pull pythons out of the plumbing in Florida. Call the River Monsters dude. Anything to keep this walking pile of terrible advice at a safe distance. Mark Penn’s counsel should never be taken internally.

I have actually written a semi-positive review of a Mark Penn book, and don’t necessarily think he has always exuded the smell of brimstone (though his Clinton White House colleague Dick Morris most definitely did), or that he personally doomed Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign. But Penn’s trajectory into Fox Democrat hackery has been confirmed by the new op-ed, principally because he’s now mischaracterizing the very 1996 Clinton-Gore campaign he helped engineer at the peak of his political career.

Here’s the Penn/Stein summation of what happened in 1996:

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.

That is at best a massive oversimplification of what happened in 1996. For one thing, if Clinton “moved the party back to the center,” it was in 1992, when he billed himself as a “different kind of Democrat” and won a plurality victory that indeed broke a long Democratic losing streak. His “centrist” agenda alienated a lot of more-traditional Democrats, and the Donkey Party lost a historic landslide defeat in the 1994 midterms. In 1996, the Clinton-Gore campaign, as Mark Penn knows quite well, did not just “move to the center,” but fought and benefited from the GOP extremism that the “Republican Revolution” led by Newt Gingrich represented.

The signature mantra of the Clinton-Gore ’96 campaign was nicely presented by the vice-presidential candidate in a debate with his rival, Jack Kemp:

The plan from Senator Dole and Mr. Kemp is a risky, $550-billion tax scheme that actually raises taxes on 9 million of the hardest pressed working families. It would blow a hole in the deficit, cause much deeper cuts in Medicare, Medicaid, education, and the environment. 

This mantra — Medicare, Medicaid, education, environment — was so formulaic that it was reduced, literally, to a formula: M2 E2. Perhaps the welfare-reform and community-policing initiatives helped make the election revolve around M2 E2. But the idea that this was how Democrats won is really sketchy. The more plausible theory of 1996 is that Gingrich’s Republicans overreached in attacking very popular New Deal–Great Society safety-net programs, and the Clinton-Gore campaign made them pay the price. This is exactly what the Democratic “resistance” to Donald Trump plans to do in 2018 and beyond, and it is more than a little ironic that Penn and Stein are touting the 1996 campaign in attacking them for it.

Beyond that, as many Penn/Stein critics have pointed out, a lot has changed since 1996, particularly in the Democratic Party’s own base.

But again, it’s not clear Mark Penn and Andrew Stein are really all that interested in influencing Democrats. If they offer dubious advice Democrats are sure to reject, then they are mainly recommending themselves as apostates ready to bash the donkey on conservative media. That’s a very profitable line of business, and if Mark Penn pursues it, his most adamant progressive critics will be entirely vindicated.

Mark Penn Mischaracterizes the 1996 Clinton-Gore Campaign