washington, dc

The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Ed Kilgore

July 22: From 2016 Landslide to 2018 Defeat: Why Some “Safe” House GOP Seats Really Aren’t

I ran across a fascinating analysis of House midterm elections at Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball, and condensed and extended it at New York:

The good news for House Republicans, according to a detailed analysis of the midterm landscape from Kyle Kondik of Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball, is that 226 of the 241 GOP winners last year won by a double-digit margin, typically the definition of a “landslide.”

The bad news is that in the last three midterm elections (2006, 2010, and 2014), the average House incumbent representing the party that controlled the White House suffered a negative swing of 12 points. So even “landslide” winners in the previous cycle got quickly into hot water when the midterms rolled around.

Indeed, fully 21 House Republican incumbents won by 12 points or less in 2016. Ten of them also represent districts won by Hillary Clinton.

[E]ven if all 21 seats fell to the Democrats — and they lost none of their own — that still wouldn’t be enough to flip control of the House.

The hunt for additional pickups might begin with the 13 House incumbents who did win by more than 12 points in 2016 — but whose districts were carried by Hillary Clinton. And perhaps even more promising are open seats, as Kondik notes:

“[T]he results in open seats defended by the presidential party [in the last three midterms] saw huge swings in favor of the opposite party. In such seats, the presidential party share declined about 11 points from the presidential to the midterm elections — or 22 points in terms of margin — and the president’s party only held 25 of the 46 seats included in the study over the three midterms.”

At the moment, there is only one open GOP House seat where the Republican stepping down won by fewer than 22 points (the 27th district in South Florida, long represented by Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, which Hillary Clinton carried by nearly 20 points). But additional retirements in the next few months will produce more open GOP seats, and probably more targets.

There is no guarantee, of course, that 2018 will be an “average” midterm. But given President Trump’s persistently low approval ratings and the current high level of political engagement among Democrats, if anything, the next midterm is likely to produce an anti–White House wave that is above average. So while Republicans have done a good job via gerrymandering in making a very high percentage of their incumbents safe, the benchmark for “safety” may be higher than ever, too.


From 2016 Landslide to 2018 Defeat: Why Some “Safe” House GOP Seats Really Aren’t

I ran across a fascinating analysis of House midterm elections at Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball, and condensed and extended it at New York:

The good news for House Republicans, according to a detailed analysis of the midterm landscape from Kyle Kondik of Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball, is that 226 of the 241 GOP winners last year won by a double-digit margin, typically the definition of a “landslide.”

The bad news is that in the last three midterm elections (2006, 2010, and 2014), the average House incumbent representing the party that controlled the White House suffered a negative swing of 12 points. So even “landslide” winners in the previous cycle got quickly into hot water when the midterms rolled around.

Indeed, fully 21 House Republican incumbents won by 12 points or less in 2016. Ten of them also represent districts won by Hillary Clinton.

[E]ven if all 21 seats fell to the Democrats — and they lost none of their own — that still wouldn’t be enough to flip control of the House.

The hunt for additional pickups might begin with the 13 House incumbents who did win by more than 12 points in 2016 — but whose districts were carried by Hillary Clinton. And perhaps even more promising are open seats, as Kondik notes:

“[T]he results in open seats defended by the presidential party [in the last three midterms] saw huge swings in favor of the opposite party. In such seats, the presidential party share declined about 11 points from the presidential to the midterm elections — or 22 points in terms of margin — and the president’s party only held 25 of the 46 seats included in the study over the three midterms.”

At the moment, there is only one open GOP House seat where the Republican stepping down won by fewer than 22 points (the 27th district in South Florida, long represented by Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, which Hillary Clinton carried by nearly 20 points). But additional retirements in the next few months will produce more open GOP seats, and probably more targets.

There is no guarantee, of course, that 2018 will be an “average” midterm. But given President Trump’s persistently low approval ratings and the current high level of political engagement among Democrats, if anything, the next midterm is likely to produce an anti–White House wave that is above average. So while Republicans have done a good job via gerrymandering in making a very high percentage of their incumbents safe, the benchmark for “safety” may be higher than ever, too.


July 20: Sessions Defines Trumpism, But Russia’s More Important To the Boss

After reading the president’s remarkable interview with the New York Times, I had this to say at New York about one strange revelation:

[T]he president extensively vented his fury at Attorney General Jeff Sessions for recusing himself from the Justice Department’s investigation of Russian involvement in the 2016 election, inquiring minds obviously wanted to know if Sessions might be stepping down. Trump had, after all, basically said he regretted his choice of Sessions and would not have made it had he known what he knows now.

But today Sessions briefly and mildly responded to questions about Trump’s comments by saying he planned to stay on in the Justice Department “as long as that appropriate,” as the Times reported.

Trump has complained about Sessions’s recusal before, though in the past his anger has been expressed behind the scenes and via intermediaries. But more generally, this is also not the first time the president has accused subordinates of fireable offenses without trying to fire them, as my colleague Olivia Nuzzi has pointed out:

“Although Trump once tried and failed to trademark the words, ‘You’re fired!’ — his catchphrase from The Apprentice — it seems that he doesn’t actually enjoy repealing and replacing the loyalists that surround him. Like so much with the president, it’s shtick designed to make him look tough. ‘At the end of the day, he’s a natural-born salesman and he likes people to like him,’ a…senior administration official said. ‘He’s a conflict-avoider. He hates firing people.'”

So long as Sessions is willing to put up with his boss’s public abuse, his job is probably secure for the time being. That is particularly true because Trump’s post-Sessions options at Justice are not good, and a Senate confirmation hearing for a subsequent nominee might not go very well.

But Sessions’s feelings aside, the optics of Trump’s tirades against the attorney general are terrible. He owes an awful lot to Jeff Sessions, his earliest real supporter on Capitol Hill. They have no significant policy disagreements that we know of. If there is such a thing as “Trumpism,” Sessions is its chief acolyte.

For Trump to ignore all that and repeatedly trash-talk his attorney general because of his prudent recusal over the Russia investigation is a pretty clear indication that the president is not just distracted by the probe, but intensely fears it. He can claim all he wants that the whole thing is “fake news” that the failed media or the loser Democrats invented, but his behavior shows otherwise.


Sessions Defines Trumpism, But Russia’s More Important To the Boss

After reading the president’s remarkable interview with the New York Times, I had this to say at New York about one strange revelation:

[T]he president extensively vented his fury at Attorney General Jeff Sessions for recusing himself from the Justice Department’s investigation of Russian involvement in the 2016 election, inquiring minds obviously wanted to know if Sessions might be stepping down. Trump had, after all, basically said he regretted his choice of Sessions and would not have made it had he known what he knows now.

But today Sessions briefly and mildly responded to questions about Trump’s comments by saying he planned to stay on in the Justice Department “as long as that appropriate,” as the Times reported.

Trump has complained about Sessions’s recusal before, though in the past his anger has been expressed behind the scenes and via intermediaries. But more generally, this is also not the first time the president has accused subordinates of fireable offenses without trying to fire them, as my colleague Olivia Nuzzi has pointed out:

“Although Trump once tried and failed to trademark the words, ‘You’re fired!’ — his catchphrase from The Apprentice — it seems that he doesn’t actually enjoy repealing and replacing the loyalists that surround him. Like so much with the president, it’s shtick designed to make him look tough. ‘At the end of the day, he’s a natural-born salesman and he likes people to like him,’ a…senior administration official said. ‘He’s a conflict-avoider. He hates firing people.'”

So long as Sessions is willing to put up with his boss’s public abuse, his job is probably secure for the time being. That is particularly true because Trump’s post-Sessions options at Justice are not good, and a Senate confirmation hearing for a subsequent nominee might not go very well.

But Sessions’s feelings aside, the optics of Trump’s tirades against the attorney general are terrible. He owes an awful lot to Jeff Sessions, his earliest real supporter on Capitol Hill. They have no significant policy disagreements that we know of. If there is such a thing as “Trumpism,” Sessions is its chief acolyte.

For Trump to ignore all that and repeatedly trash-talk his attorney general because of his prudent recusal over the Russia investigation is a pretty clear indication that the president is not just distracted by the probe, but intensely fears it. He can claim all he wants that the whole thing is “fake news” that the failed media or the loser Democrats invented, but his behavior shows otherwise.


July 15: Democratic Senators In Trump Country Looking Solid for 2018

I don’t usually pay much attention to Karl Rove’s predictable writing. But the one-time Boy Genius’ latest column just begged for a response, which I provided at New York.

[V]eteran spinner Karl Rove devoted a Wall Street Journal column to a baleful assessment of the reelection prospects of Senate Democrats running in states carried handily by Donald Trump last year.

There’s a certain dated quality to Rove’s analysis; he writes as though these senators are fresh from gazing in awe at Trump’s 2016 victory and are trying to decide whether to fight back or run for the hills. In reality, these pols have for the most part chosen to oppose every unpopular thing Trump and the congressional GOP have proposed this year, which fortunately for red-state Democrats is nearly their entire agenda. Still, the 2016 numbers are indeed daunting for some:

“The 25 Democratic senators who face re-election in 2018 are already gearing up for a fight. Their latest quarterly fundraising reports, released over the past two weeks, show impressive totals, ranging up to $3.1 million. But for the 10 Democrats from states carried by President Trump, a well-stuffed war chest may not be enough.

“This is especially true for six senators in states where Mr. Trump’s victory last November was huge. He won Joe Manchin’s West Virginia by an astonishing 42 points; Heidi Heitkamp’s North Dakota by 36 points; Jon Tester’s Montana by 20; Joe Donnelly’s Indiana and Claire McCaskill’s Missouri by 19, and Sherrod Brown’s Ohio by 8.”

Rove goes on to make a very dubious assertion that we are going to hear a lot from Republicans between now and November of 2018:

“They must all keep an eye on the president’s favorability ratings. On Election Day, Mr. Trump was viewed favorably by 37.5% of voters and unfavorably by 58.5%, according to the RealClearPolitics average. As of this Wednesday, his ratings stood at 40.4% favorable and 53.6% unfavorable.

“Mr. Trump is likely to be more popular in states he won than his national average: The larger his margin in those states last November, the better he stands now. If this trend holds through 2018, Democrats in states Mr. Trump won by double or nearly double digits could face stiff re-election contests.”

This argument ignores the rather pertinent fact that Trump was running against a rival who was almost as unpopular as he was. In 2018, Republicans won’t have the luxury of running against Hillary Clinton. Instead, they will be up against well-known Senate incumbents with their own public profiles, and in a midterm environment where there is usually a wind blowing against the party controlling the White House.

So while we should indeed “keep and eye on the president’s favorability ratings,” those of the senators in question are even more relevant. As it happens Morning Consult just released an update of its home-state favorability assessments for all 100 U.S. senators, and the very Democrats Rove thinks are in inherently deep trouble are actually doing quite well. Joe Manchin’s ratio is 57/31; Heidi Heitkamp’s is an even more impressive 60/28. Jon Tester (50/39), Joe Donnelly (53/25), and Sherrod Brown (50/29) are at or above the magic 50-percent level that often connotes future victory, with limited “unfavorables,” and Claire McCaskill (46/38) isn’t exactly plumbing the depths of unpopularity, either.

In fact, the one senator up in 2018 whose favorability numbers are underwater is a Republican, Jeff Flake of Arizona (37/45).

Another problem for the GOP is that it is struggling to find credible challengers to theoretically vulnerable Democrats in some states (as in Missouri, where consensus GOP favorite Representative Ann Wagner decided not to take on McCaskill), and is facing potentially fractious Republican primaries (as in Indiana, where Representatives Luke Messer and Todd Rokita are already attacking each other) in others.

There is plenty of time for things to change in the months ahead, and nobody on the Democratic side has any reason to feel complacent about holding onto Senate seats in one of the more lopsided landscapes in living memory. But for now, a Democratic red-state bloodbath in 2018 looks unlikely. And if congressional Republicans continue to flail around in the clumsy pursuit of an unpopular agenda, the odds of survival for Democrats in Trump Country will only go up.


Democratic Senators In Trump Country Looking Solid for 2018

I don’t usually pay much attention to Karl Rove’s predictable writing. But the one-time Boy Genius’ latest column just begged for a response, which I provided at New York.

[V]eteran spinner Karl Rove devoted a Wall Street Journal column to a baleful assessment of the reelection prospects of Senate Democrats running in states carried handily by Donald Trump last year.

There’s a certain dated quality to Rove’s analysis; he writes as though these senators are fresh from gazing in awe at Trump’s 2016 victory and are trying to decide whether to fight back or run for the hills. In reality, these pols have for the most part chosen to oppose every unpopular thing Trump and the congressional GOP have proposed this year, which fortunately for red-state Democrats is nearly their entire agenda. Still, the 2016 numbers are indeed daunting for some:

“The 25 Democratic senators who face re-election in 2018 are already gearing up for a fight. Their latest quarterly fundraising reports, released over the past two weeks, show impressive totals, ranging up to $3.1 million. But for the 10 Democrats from states carried by President Trump, a well-stuffed war chest may not be enough.

“This is especially true for six senators in states where Mr. Trump’s victory last November was huge. He won Joe Manchin’s West Virginia by an astonishing 42 points; Heidi Heitkamp’s North Dakota by 36 points; Jon Tester’s Montana by 20; Joe Donnelly’s Indiana and Claire McCaskill’s Missouri by 19, and Sherrod Brown’s Ohio by 8.”

Rove goes on to make a very dubious assertion that we are going to hear a lot from Republicans between now and November of 2018:

“They must all keep an eye on the president’s favorability ratings. On Election Day, Mr. Trump was viewed favorably by 37.5% of voters and unfavorably by 58.5%, according to the RealClearPolitics average. As of this Wednesday, his ratings stood at 40.4% favorable and 53.6% unfavorable.

“Mr. Trump is likely to be more popular in states he won than his national average: The larger his margin in those states last November, the better he stands now. If this trend holds through 2018, Democrats in states Mr. Trump won by double or nearly double digits could face stiff re-election contests.”

This argument ignores the rather pertinent fact that Trump was running against a rival who was almost as unpopular as he was. In 2018, Republicans won’t have the luxury of running against Hillary Clinton. Instead, they will be up against well-known Senate incumbents with their own public profiles, and in a midterm environment where there is usually a wind blowing against the party controlling the White House.

So while we should indeed “keep and eye on the president’s favorability ratings,” those of the senators in question are even more relevant. As it happens Morning Consult just released an update of its home-state favorability assessments for all 100 U.S. senators, and the very Democrats Rove thinks are in inherently deep trouble are actually doing quite well. Joe Manchin’s ratio is 57/31; Heidi Heitkamp’s is an even more impressive 60/28. Jon Tester (50/39), Joe Donnelly (53/25), and Sherrod Brown (50/29) are at or above the magic 50-percent level that often connotes future victory, with limited “unfavorables,” and Claire McCaskill (46/38) isn’t exactly plumbing the depths of unpopularity, either.

In fact, the one senator up in 2018 whose favorability numbers are underwater is a Republican, Jeff Flake of Arizona (37/45).

Another problem for the GOP is that it is struggling to find credible challengers to theoretically vulnerable Democrats in some states (as in Missouri, where consensus GOP favorite Representative Ann Wagner decided not to take on McCaskill), and is facing potentially fractious Republican primaries (as in Indiana, where Representatives Luke Messer and Todd Rokita are already attacking each other) in others.

There is plenty of time for things to change in the months ahead, and nobody on the Democratic side has any reason to feel complacent about holding onto Senate seats in one of the more lopsided landscapes in living memory. But for now, a Democratic red-state bloodbath in 2018 looks unlikely. And if congressional Republicans continue to flail around in the clumsy pursuit of an unpopular agenda, the odds of survival for Democrats in Trump Country will only go up.


July 12: Do Republicans Even Support Health Insurance?

As congressional Republicans continue to stumble around in search of a workable and politically non-toxic health care plan, it occurred to me, and not for the first time, that there’s something very old-school about their rhetoric on health insurance. I wrote up my ruminations at New York:

As Senate Republicans go through the valley of the shadow of death for their health-care plan, questions are again being raised about what they really want. Is it lower premiums for individual health insurance, particularly for the people (presumably many of them Republicans) who aren’t poor enough to qualify for Obamacare’s purchasing subsidies? Is it “entitlement reform,” focused on rolling back the Affordable Care Act’s Medicaid expansion and then capping that program’s growth forever as a government-shrinking exercise? Is all the talk about health policy really just a disguise, as many liberals suspect, for an agenda of high-end tax cuts and low-end spending cuts that have little or nothing to do with Obamacare?

The answers to these questions may be as various as the micro-factions of the GOP in Congress, and a lot of the answers most definitely lack coherence. But one policy impulse shared by some conservatives is important to understand because it encourages a very destructive attitude toward the existing health-care system. Some conservatives really just don’t like the idea of health insurance as we know it.

This has again become apparent in some of the senatorial reactions to the Congressional Budget Office’s estimates of how many Americans (22 million) would lose health insurance under the Better Care Reconciliation Act. Here’s the classic from the number-two Republican in the Senate, John Cornyn:

He wants to celebrate the “freedom” of Americans to go without health insurance, though he surely understands most of the 22 million would not “choose” this option if affordable health insurance was available.

That’s not as exotic a belief as you might imagine.

Conservatives have long believed that “third-party” health insurance — health insurance provided by employers or the government — encourages over-utilization of health services and thus is responsible for high rates of medical inflation. And many believe the only legitimate purpose of health insurance should be to cover catastrophic costs, not the routine medical services that people used to pay out-of-pocket in the days before a combination of tax subsidies, collective bargaining, and employer competition made employer-sponsored comprehensive insurance plans common.

So, unsurprisingly, most conservatives who can be coaxed into a discussion of their actual aims propose getting rid of or expanding to individuals the tax subsidy for employer-sponsored health plans, to reduce the incentive to access care whenever you think you need it. And they envision a system in which everyone pays for routine care via a tax-preferred health savings account — basically paying the doc out-of-pocket the way Americans did back in the Good Old Days of individual responsibility — and has a relatively cheap catastrophic-care policy to cover life-threatening conditions.

Whether you find this vision frightening or invigorating, it is clearly very different not only from the Obamacare status quo, but from the status quo ante long before Obamacare. This longing for really old-school health-care policy causes all sorts of political problems for the Republicans that harbor it. For one thing, it cuts against the hatred of high out-of-pocket costs that unites most middle-class folks regardless of party or ideology. And for another, as Cornyn has learned, treating comprehensive health insurance as a socialistic vice corrosive of American values just does not accord with the actual values of actual Americans.

At the moment, Republicans clearly do not have the power or the popular support to impose an early-1950s vision of health care on the country. They nonetheless fight every feature of the health-care system that involves spreading the risk — and the cost — of poor health, which is the basic function of private as well as “government” health care.


Do Republicans Even Support Health Insurance?

As congressional Republicans continue to stumble around in search of a workable and politically non-toxic health care plan, it occurred to me, and not for the first time, that there’s something very old-school about their rhetoric on health insurance. I wrote up my ruminations at New York:

As Senate Republicans go through the valley of the shadow of death for their health-care plan, questions are again being raised about what they really want. Is it lower premiums for individual health insurance, particularly for the people (presumably many of them Republicans) who aren’t poor enough to qualify for Obamacare’s purchasing subsidies? Is it “entitlement reform,” focused on rolling back the Affordable Care Act’s Medicaid expansion and then capping that program’s growth forever as a government-shrinking exercise? Is all the talk about health policy really just a disguise, as many liberals suspect, for an agenda of high-end tax cuts and low-end spending cuts that have little or nothing to do with Obamacare?

The answers to these questions may be as various as the micro-factions of the GOP in Congress, and a lot of the answers most definitely lack coherence. But one policy impulse shared by some conservatives is important to understand because it encourages a very destructive attitude toward the existing health-care system. Some conservatives really just don’t like the idea of health insurance as we know it.

This has again become apparent in some of the senatorial reactions to the Congressional Budget Office’s estimates of how many Americans (22 million) would lose health insurance under the Better Care Reconciliation Act. Here’s the classic from the number-two Republican in the Senate, John Cornyn:

He wants to celebrate the “freedom” of Americans to go without health insurance, though he surely understands most of the 22 million would not “choose” this option if affordable health insurance was available.

That’s not as exotic a belief as you might imagine.

Conservatives have long believed that “third-party” health insurance — health insurance provided by employers or the government — encourages over-utilization of health services and thus is responsible for high rates of medical inflation. And many believe the only legitimate purpose of health insurance should be to cover catastrophic costs, not the routine medical services that people used to pay out-of-pocket in the days before a combination of tax subsidies, collective bargaining, and employer competition made employer-sponsored comprehensive insurance plans common.

So, unsurprisingly, most conservatives who can be coaxed into a discussion of their actual aims propose getting rid of or expanding to individuals the tax subsidy for employer-sponsored health plans, to reduce the incentive to access care whenever you think you need it. And they envision a system in which everyone pays for routine care via a tax-preferred health savings account — basically paying the doc out-of-pocket the way Americans did back in the Good Old Days of individual responsibility — and has a relatively cheap catastrophic-care policy to cover life-threatening conditions.

Whether you find this vision frightening or invigorating, it is clearly very different not only from the Obamacare status quo, but from the status quo ante long before Obamacare. This longing for really old-school health-care policy causes all sorts of political problems for the Republicans that harbor it. For one thing, it cuts against the hatred of high out-of-pocket costs that unites most middle-class folks regardless of party or ideology. And for another, as Cornyn has learned, treating comprehensive health insurance as a socialistic vice corrosive of American values just does not accord with the actual values of actual Americans.

At the moment, Republicans clearly do not have the power or the popular support to impose an early-1950s vision of health care on the country. They nonetheless fight every feature of the health-care system that involves spreading the risk — and the cost — of poor health, which is the basic function of private as well as “government” health care.


July 7: The 1996 Democratic Presidential Win Was a Lot More Complicated Than a “Move to the Center”

When former Bill/Hillary Clinton pollster and strategist Mark Penn kicked up a storm with some controversial “lessons” from a campaign many of us graphically remember, I waited for the dust to settle a bit and then weighed in at New York.

Unlike many left-of-center commentators, I do not automatically begin to froth at the mouth when the name Mark Penn comes up….

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 a new op-ed [co-authored with Andrew Stein], principally because he’s now mischaracterizing the very 1996 Clinton-Gore campaign he helped engineer as 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.


The 1996 Democratic Presidential Win Was a Lot More Complicated Than a “Move to the Center”

When former Bill/Hillary Clinton pollster and strategist Mark Penn kicked up a storm with some controversial “lessons” from a campaign many of us graphically remember, I waited for the dust to settle a bit and then weighed in at New York.

Unlike many left-of-center commentators, I do not automatically begin to froth at the mouth when the name Mark Penn comes up….

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 a new op-ed [co-authored with Andrew Stein], principally because he’s now mischaracterizing the very 1996 Clinton-Gore campaign he helped engineer as 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.