POLITICS
07/06/2017 03:57 pm ET

It’s 2017. Democrats Should Really Just Stop Taking Mark Penn’s Advice.

The 1990s are a distant memory.
Mark Penn has returned from political oblivion to regale Democrats with sage advice.
Teresa Kroeger/Getty Images
Mark Penn has returned from political oblivion to regale Democrats with sage advice.

As Democrats rummage through the debris of the catastrophic 2016 election, a bevy of pundits and warring ideological factions has sprung up to explain the party’s misfortune and advise it on the best path forward.

Given the glut of electoral analyses, party leaders might do well to cross one item off their list: Listening to anything Mark Penn has to say.

Together with the former Manhattan borough president Andrew Stein, Penn, a Democratic pollster, co-wrote a column in The New York Times on Thursday calling on Democrats to “move back to the center.”

The column has some ideas that are uncontroversial among rank-and-file Democrats like rebuilding the country’s infrastructure, tackling the opioid crisis and beefing up protections for workers in the “gig economy.”

But Penn and Stein’s calls to “reject socialism,” moderate stances in favor of transgender and immigrant rights, and fight crime by increasing police are tougher sells.

The thing is, taking advice from Penn about how to win elections is a little like turning to Phil Jackson for wisdom on how to win an NBA title. It was a decent idea in 1996, now, not so much.

Indeed, in the Times column, Penn references his success helping then-President Bill Clinton win reelection in 1996.

But Penn’s record as a campaign consigliere since then has been characterized by high-profile losses.

Most famously, Penn presided over Hillary Clinton’s defeat at the hands of Barack Obama in the 2008 presidential primary.

Penn’s mistakes during the campaign, enumerated comprehensively in a September 2008 story in The Atlantic, included assuming that the American public would never elect a black man with a foreign name. He reassured Clinton that the right-wing media was cheering Obama on because they wanted Democrats to lose in the general election and advised her to attack Obama for his “lack of American roots.”

Clinton reportedly chose not to take this route, but Penn’s counsel nonetheless appears to have seeped into her thinking. In one of her biggest campaign blunders, Clinton said, “Sen. Obama’s support among working, hard-working Americans, white Americans is weakening.”

Penn ultimately resigned from his self-appointed role as Clinton’s “chief strategist” after it emerged that he met with Colombian officials about promoting a free trade agreement through his consulting firm that Clinton officially opposed.

Penn went on to spearhead a public relations campaign for Microsoft targeting Google for allowing companies to purchase preferential search engine placement. The campaign’s “Scroogled” ads drew widespread mockery for using political war room tactics in an intercorporate struggle. Efforts to stoke public outrage about the Silicon Valley giant’s practices quickly fizzled.

As a result, Penn’s reemergence from political oblivion to save Democrats from their transgender bathroom and “government handout”-loving selves was met with incredulity on Twitter. 

Elon Green, an editor at Longform, even discovered evidence that Penn has been dispensing centrist advice since his days as a Harvard undergraduate. In an October 1973 column in the Harvard Crimson, Penn argued Democrats should exercise “care” in impeaching then-President Richard Nixon lest they impeach him on “political grounds,” which he said would be “wrong.”

As for the substance of Penn’s advice, it is best described as frozen in the amber of the 1990s. At the time, Democrats believed that their ticket to victory was deregulating financial markets and locking up more of America’s black and brown men.

Faced with rising income inequality, Democratic voters, moderate and liberal alike, favor more government spending on social programs, not less, according to an April Pew Research Center poll. An Associated Press poll from February 2016 found that half of Democratic voters think Wall Street reform has not gone far enough.

The socially moderate, pro-business “centrism” described by Penn remains extremely popular with Silicon Valley billionaires and other elites. But it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the public is moving in the opposite direction, flocking to populists like President Donald Trump and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) to take over a system whose cast of players they no longer trust.

Even as Penn proposes hiring more cops in American cities, a feature of the tough-on-crime 1990s, there is a growing recognition in both parties of the severe unintended consequences of this approach, which was implemented by former President Bill Clinton under Penn’s guidance. In Congress, finding ways to undo the harsh sentencing laws that have given the U.S. the largest prison population in the world is a rare area of bipartisan agreement.

There are surely debates to be had about how Democrats should talk about cultural issues in more traditional parts of the country.

But Penn’s advice to ease up on the issue of transgender bathroom rights flies in the face of a key piece of empirical evidence. As the Post’s Dave Weigel points out, Democrats flipped the governorship in North Carolina in 2016 thanks to popular opposition to the state’s so-called bathroom bill that allowed discrimination against LGBT people.

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