A (sort Of) Defense Of Mark Penn

by Josh Patashnik | April 8, 2008

One of the things I've noticed about several of the Mark Penn retrospectives out there is that they feel as though they were written before the campaign even started. For instance, Mark Schmitt says

Penn sold the same narrow and narrowing brand of politics at every point for the last twelve years. The names changed: soccer moms became office-park dads, and this year they have been relabeled "security moms." But the formula is always the same: There is a single group of (white, middle-aged, middle-class) voters who decide the election, all the rest is constant, and the key to the election is appealing to that group with limited, essentially conservative messages.

Whatever one wants to say about Hillary Clinton's campaign, it's not characterized by a "limited, essentially conservative" message. From a policy standpoint, it's largely indistinguishable from Barack Obama's. As Jon Chait has noted, Clinton's formidable coalition of populist downscale voters is distinctly un-Penn-like. There's no doubt that the Clinton campaign generally, and Penn in particular, have made a number of big mistakes over the course of the campaign (most notably, their failure to seriously contest the caucus states). But these mistakes were all tactical rather than ideological: Hillary's campaign isn't floundering because its agenda was too moderate or tepid.

A lot of liberals resent Penn because he's personally a centrist (and, relatedly, because his strategy of running to the middle in 1996 proved a success). And, of course, Penn is rather unappealing in certain other ways--not least of which being his penchant for shameless spin, worthy of Baghdad Bob. But it's important to be clear about what criticisms of Penn are fair and which aren't. His own views aside, he's shown a remarkable ability to shepherd his candidates into line with the prevailing political zeitgeist: in the middle during the if-it-ain't-broke-don't-fix-it '90s, further left now in reaction to Bush's presidency. If the Clinton campaign had simply assigned Penn the task of broad ideological positioning and kept him as far away as possible from conference calls, television cameras, and electoral strategy, things might look a lot better for Hillary now. (Granted, that's not worth the millions of dollars Clinton was paying him, but still.)

I suppose I'd also like to put in a defense of the specific brand of unspectacular, grind-it-out politics Penn pursued in 1996, which Schmitt describes as a "dreary low point for the nation's politics." Penn ran that campaign the way Princeton used to win basketball games, and there's a good deal of beauty in both. I suspect most Americans wouldn't mind having the politics of 1996 back--sleazy donors and all--if we could have the economy and global landscape of 1996 back too. Boring elections and domestic tranquility go hand in hand--the passion generated this year and in 2004 would be inconceivable had Bush not proven such a failure. There are far worse fates for a nation to suffer than voter apathy.

--Josh Patashnik

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