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You’ll Never Guess What Mark Penn Wants the Democrats to Do

He has one song -- it sucked in 1996, and in 2021 it's completely incoherent.

Web Summit 2017

You will never guess what former ultimate Clinton insider Mark Penn wants Joe Biden to do in the wake of last week’s Democratic losses—unless, of course, you know anything at all about Mark Penn.

Penn and former New York City Council president Andrew Stein took to the New York Times‘ welcoming op-ed page Monday to explain What Went Wrong in Virginia and New Jersey. Penn and Stein’s theory is essentially this: Joe Biden has allowed the Democratic left, namely Sen. Bernie Sanders and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, soil the party’s stellar reputation by attempting to enact Biden’s own agenda. And because of that, fellow Clinton loyalist and ideological centrist Terry McAuliffe lost the Virginia governorship (and Virginia Democrats every statewide office plus the House of Delegates) and New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy had a closer-than-expected call in his re-election bid.

Penn and Stein write:

But the last few years of the Obama administration and the 2016 primary season once again created a rush to the left. Identity politics, class warfare and big government all made comebacks. Candidates inspired by Senator Bernie Sanders, Senator Elizabeth Warren and a host of well-funded groups have embraced sharply leftist ideas. But the results at the voting booth have been anything but positive: Democrats lost over 1,000 legislative seats across the country and control of both houses of Congress during the Obama years. And in special elections for Congress this year, they failed to take back any seats held by Republicans.

Wait my bad, this is the wrong one. This is from a 2017 New York Times op-ed by Mark Penn and Andrew Stein called “Back to the Center, Democrats.”

This is the right one:

More than 70 percent of registered voters say they want members of Congress to compromise and get things done, rather than stick to their principles and create even more gridlock. “Compromise” may be a dirty word to partisans, but it is a golden word with the voters today. Watching President Donald Trump demand a wall, and Democratic Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer say Trump will never, ever get it, is exactly what the voters don’t want. We elected them to figure it out.

Sorry that’s not it either, that’s one of Penn’s many Fox News op-eds over the past several years coincidentally saying the exact kind of thing someone who watches Fox News wants to hear a Democrat say. This is the real one, in which he outlines the way Democrats can win back swing voters:

[…]meeting the voters head-on with stronger borders, a slower transition from fossil fuels, a focus on bread-and-butter economic issues (such as the price of gas and groceries), fixes to the supply chain fiasco that is impacting the cost of goods and the pursuit of more moderate social spending bills. Nearly three in four voters see the border as a crisis that needs immediate attention. Moving to the center does not mean budging from core social issues like abortion rights and L.G.B.T.Q. rights that are at the heart of what the party believes in and are largely in sync with suburban voters. But it does mean connecting to voters’ immediate needs and anxieties. As Democrats found in the late ’90s, the success of the administration begets enthusiasm from the base, and we actually gained seats in the 1998 midterms under the theme of “progress not partisanship.”

There are exactly two things you have to know about Mark Penn in order to understand Mark Penn: he was hired by the Clinton White House after Democrats got blown out in the 1994 midterms, Bill Clinton won re-election two years later, and for the last 25 years Penn has insisted that these two events mean that the only way the Democratic Party can maintain power and relevancy is by remaining a right-wing party forever.

The second thing you have to know is that Penn’s defining trait, aside from his reactionary politics, is his relentless ideological commitment to neoliberalism and corporatism. He was fired by Hillary Clinton in 2008, not just for giving bad advice that lost her the campaign to the freshman senator who ran as a much more liberal candidate—and then won the general election handily—but also because he could not stop doing deals for five minutes. His roster of clients and people he’s advised over the years, in addition to the Clintons, has included Menachem Begin and Likud, Tony Blair, and Donald Trump.

1996 is not 2021, but this is what Mark Penn does—he pretends the release of Super Mario 64 stopped time and we’re still living in that world. It’s not his fault. That lies with the New York Times, for handing him a platform to say the same thing he’s been saying since 1997 in any medium that will have him, letting him assume the identity of a mere observer who found some interesting statistics in the not-at-all push poll he ran rather than someone who has a vested interest in the Democratic Party veering back towards 1990s triangulation politics.

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First of all, a lot of Penn’s opposition and numbers come from the size of the bill. It bears repeating that the Democratic majority is purposefully handcuffing itself to a bill with a scary-sounding topline number because they are trying to jam their entire agenda into a single reconciliation bill. The reason for this is that they refuse to kill the filibuster—even in an existential crisis—and that thanks both to the failures of Democratic recruitment and the nature of the Democratic Party itself, their majority rests on two outwardly right-wing senators and a bunch of rotating villains.

But it’s also worth pointing out that Penn’s messaging advice for Democrats is really no different than what the party’s most progressive members are saying. Penn’s proposed remedies include bringing hearing, dental, and vision benefits back into Build Back Better. Those cuts were not made by Sanders or Ocasio-Cortez, but by “solvency” fearmongers like Joe Manchin, with political cover from Nancy Pelosi.

And Penn decries the inclusion of “environmental justice warriors” in the bill, though what he links to is not a detailed list of what’s in the bill but a recommendation from environmental justice groups asking Biden to use the bill to implement his own advisory council’s recommendations, in lieu of the most meaningful part of the bill that is also gone, the Clean Electricity Performance Program (CEPP). (You can also thank Manchin for this.)

Likewise, Penn says Democrats should be focusing mostly on “kitchen-table worries.” One of the Democrats’ main criticisms of Sanders between 2015 and his primary loss in 2020 was that he was too focused on economics and class as an explanation of America’s 21st-century woes, and those woes have not gone away.

The average monthly student loan payment prior to the pandemic was $393, and there’s a very real chance it climbs over $400 when payments resume next year. Is that not a kitchen table issue? It doesn’t matter anyway, because at the moment Biden seems more likely than not to exacerbate whatever economic problems we have by needlessly handing millions of Americans a bill for hundreds of dollars every month for the first time in nearly two years.

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Paid leave, another widely popular “kitchen-table worry,” has been slimmed down to almost nothing if it even gets into the bill at all. Prescription drug reform has been likewise whittled down. The bill itself went from $6 trillion under Sanders to currently $1.75 trillion, if it passes at all. It’s very much not clear it will.

This is not Medicare for All or the Green New Deal or any of the big-picture policies that have defined the Democratic left over the past six years. Again, this the kind of incrementalism that the Pragmatic wing of the party has been pushing for years—15 years, in the case of prescription drug reform—as not only an alternative to the left but the true spiritual successor to the New Deal and Great Society (both of which were both much, much more expansive than whatever Build Back Better is going to be, despite what Democrats will try to convince you of for the next several months).

Penn is a one-hit-wonder — the kind who released one song that made the top 40 decades ago, even though everyone sort of thought it sucked back then. Since then, he’s made his career off of remixing it over and over again, because even though nobody else wants to hear it, the radio DJs at the New York Times can’t get enough.

But the rest of us can tell by now that Biden and the Democrats’ success or failure doesn’t rest on how they posture on policy. At this point, the only thing that matters is whether or not the party decides to accomplish anything at all.