Enough With the Tired ’90s Takes on Today’s Democrats

Vice-President Joe Biden and former president Bill Clinton wave as they walk out of Air Force Two in Youngstown, Ohio, on October 29, 2012. Photo: Matt Rourke/AP/Shutterstock

Sometimes when I hear a bit of popular music from the 1990s — whether it’s the boy-band stylings of NSYNC or the guitar-rock version of Radiohead — it seems familiar and momentarily with-it until I realize, Oh my God, this was a quarter-century ago!

Similarly, when I read Mark Penn and Andrew Stein’s op-ed in the New York Times offering a take on the current plight of the Democratic Party, I certainly recognized a familiar tune from the ’90s. This was the heyday of the Democratic Leadership Council, an organization I loyally served in various capacities for about a decade, eventually becoming vice-president for policy. I feel that like most of my colleagues from that era, I have evolved a lot since then, as has the Democratic Party and the United States of America. But the Penn-Stein analysis shows no evolution at all: It’s a view of the current political landscape from the perspective of 1995 at the latest, and thus offers very bad advice to today’s Democrats.

That’s no great surprise when you look at the authors’ background. I’m not expert enough at the byzantine politics of New York City to understand how Stein’s self-identification as a Democrat survived his endorsement of Donald Trump in 2016. Penn was the DLC’s pollster back in the day, and more famously, was once known as the Clinton family’s pollster and quasi-strategist until he was pretty clearly excluded from Hillary’s 2016 presidential campaign. Since then, he has followed the example set by his partner from the Clinton White House, Dick Morris, by becoming a relentless troll reinforcing Republican talking points even as he trades on a Democratic Party ID nearly as anachronistic as his analysis.

Unfortunately, Penn and Stein’s advice to Democrats is pretty close to the bipartisan Beltway conventional wisdom these days. A lot of scribblers and gabbers have bought into the idea that the party lost in Virginia (and underperformed in New Jersey) on November 2 because it failed to hew to the political center, thus losing suburban swing voters who disliked the entire Biden agenda and betraying the “centrists” who made him president. Excessive pandering to the left, it is often said, portends disaster in 2022 and 2024 unless Democrats repudiate progressives and, well, do little other than preempting as many conservative-policy prescriptions as possible. This is, Penn and Stein say, precisely what Bill Clinton did between 1994 and 1996 to “save his presidency” (this period, not coincidentally, was precisely the moment when Clinton started listening to Morris and Penn).

This is a false analogy in many ways, but it mostly boils down to a refusal to recognize all the things that have changed since Penn’s salad days.

The swing vote has shrunk dramatically

There are many arguments among political scientists and journalists about the exact definition of “swing voters” (though the most common is simply likely voters who regularly change their voting patterns) and exactly how small a percentage of voters this has become (most say about or less than 10 percent of the electorate). But few would dispute that it’s a much smaller pool of voters than it was when Penn was focusing a lot of the 1996 Clinton-Gore reelection campaign’s resources on appeals to Swing I (suburban moderates) and Swing II (culturally conservative but economically liberal) voters.

The reason is simple in retrospect: In the 1990s, the two parties were still in the midst of an ideological sorting-out (voters to the left becoming Democrats, voters to the right becoming Republicans) that left a lot of voters feeling dispossessed and up for grabs. There were a lot of relatively conservative Democrats and relatively liberal Republicans in Congress and in the electorate, and in 1996 Clinton (with Penn’s advice) shrewdly won more than he lost among these voters who were adrift.

They’ve mostly realigned by now, both causing and accelerating the partisan polarization that is so notably a feature of 21st-century politics. In very close elections, swing voters can still be crucial, but so can “base” turnout, and the relative size of base and swing voters in both major parties’ coalitions is such that the kind of exclusive catering to the latter can fatally offend — and even betray — the former. And it’s not like Clinton’s swing-voter catering was noncontroversial, either, as anyone who remembers the fury of congressional Democrats over the 42nd president’s “triangulation” against them will remember (his reelection in 1996 did not do a lot for down-ballot Democrats). Yes, Democrats were united in 1998, as Penn and Stein remind us, but by then (a) progressives were defending Clinton against impeachment and removal from office, and (b) Clinton had abandoned most of his triangulating ways.

The 2021 results are a lot more complicated than some shift of suburban swing voters to the GOP

Penn and Stein call the 2021 results in New Jersey and Virginia a “resounding wake-up call to the Biden administration.” You will note that there is no mention of the 2021 gubernatorial-recall results in California, which showed left-bent Democrats losing virtually nothing from their big 2018 and 2020 wins. But even if you focus on the one actual loss in Virginia, the picture is a lot more complicated than suburban swing voters rebelling against Biden’s progressivism, as I noted last week:

Preelection analysis heavily emphasized the battle for the vote-heavy Northern Virginia suburbs, in part because college-educated white suburban voters were thought to be the key to recent Democratic success, and in part because Youngkin lived in NoVa and campaigned there heavily. He did improve on Ed Gillespie’s 2017 performance by roughly five points in NoVa (which represented 28 percent of the vote in 2017 and 29 percent in 2021), but the region did not disproportionately contribute to a six-point improvement on Gillespie’s vote percentage statewide.

As for the idea that Youngkin “flipped” college-educated white voters statewide: It seems he actually trailed Ed Gillespie’s losing performance in this category (Youngkin won 47 percent of these voters, while Gillespie won 48 percent).

The thing that jumps off the page of the Virginia exit polls is a significantly elevated turnout by Republican base voters (particularly white working-class voters) and Youngkin’s super-strong performance among Evangelicals.

But here’s the more important point: When Clinton made the “pivot” that Penn and Stein exaggerate, Democrats had already gotten clobbered in the 1994 midterms. Things do not look great for Democrats going into 2022, but it hasn’t happened yet, and unlike Clinton in 1995, Biden still has over a year to get important things done with trifecta control of the federal government. Should that matter a little, or indeed, a lot? Certainly it should if you view midterm losses as extremely likely no matter how much “pivoting” Joe Biden does.

Democrats are a much more uniformly progressive party than they were in the 1990s

Penn and Stein want Biden to ignore progressive demands and tailor his agenda to the views of Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, the truly representative Democrats — no, seriously. They write:

Senator Joe Manchin and Senator Kyrsten Sinema are not outliers in the Democratic Party — they are in fact the very heart of the Democratic Party, given that 53 percent of Democrats classify themselves as moderates or conservative.

Well, that’s one way to put it. Another is that 85 percent of Democrats (according to an authoritative Pew survey last year) classify themselves as liberals or moderates. Joe Manchin, who represents the second-Trumpiest state in the Union, is indeed an outlier among congressional Democrats, as is Sinema: From 2017 to 2021, they both voted with the Trump administration just over 50 percent of the time, far more than anyone else currently in the Senate Democratic Conference. There are plenty of moderate Democrats in the House (including 85 of the 95 members of the New Democratic Coalition) and the Senate (e.g., Michael Bennet, Tom Carper, Chris Coons, Dianne Feinstein, John Hickenlooper, Tim Kaine, Angus King, Jeanne Shaheen, Jon Tester, and Mark Warner) who didn’t join the Manchin-Sinema revolt. Who made them the king and queen of moderate Democrats? The truth is, Manchin and Sinema are well to the right of every other Senate Democrat and all but a few House Democrats. They are the very definition of “outliers.”

Biden did not have a mandate to smite progressives

You can understand that a lot of readers of the Penn/Stein op-ed might not remember the 1990s with much clarity. But even their take on 2020 is odd:

The history of the 2020 election is undisputed: Joe Biden was nominated for president because he was the moderate alternative to Bernie Sanders and then elected president as the antidote to the division engendered by Donald J. Trump. He got off to a good start, especially meeting the early challenge of Covid-19 vaccine distribution. But polling on key issues show that voters have been turning against the Biden administration, and rejecting its embrace of parts of the Bernie Sanders/Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez playbook.

Really? As I remember it, Joe Biden survived the early phase of the nominating process almost exclusively because of his strong standing among Black voters (who preferred him to Black candidates Cory Booker and Kamala Harris, and to moderates Mike Bloomberg, Pete Buttigieg, and Amy Klobuchar), however they identified themselves ideologically. These Black voters were emphatically not Joe Manchin/Kyrsten Sinema Democrats. Biden’s perceived advantage in electability was his main advantage over Bernie, but then they reached relatively quick agreement on what became the 2020 Democratic platform, which the Build Back Better agenda reflects in a fairly modest way.

Biden cannot go back to the 1990s

The irony about all the unfriendly advice to Joe Biden to abandon what he has been doing since being elected president and emulate the Democratic politics of the 1990s is that he was there, and he was generally aligned with the Clintonian wing of the party. He had to repudiate part of that legacy — notably the 1994 Crime Bill that the Republicans of that day called wildly left-wing — in order to put himself in a position to win the Democratic nomination in 2020. This septuagenarian evolved along with his party, both in Congress and in the country. He can’t go back now.

Enough With the Tired ’90s Takes on Today’s Democrats