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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Imaginary “Centrists”

This item by Ed Kilgore was originally published on September 20, 2011.
You knew this would happen the moment the president’s job speech and his deficit reduction proposal were interpreted as a “move to the left” aimed at “energizing the base:” MSM and conservative jabberers would have to come up with some “Democratic centrists” who were offended by the “move.”
And like clockwork, Mark Penn popped up with a HuffPo column that is careening around the chattering classes, accusing Obama of waging “class warfare” by proposing upper-crust tax rates closer to those that prevailed before Bush’s 2001 tax cuts.
Watch in awe as U.S. News‘ Ken Walsh turns Penn’s isolated protest and scattered Senate objections into a major factional fight:

Some centrists such as Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana are firmly opposed to higher taxes on energy companies, which provide jobs and an economic foundation for her state. Other centrist Democrats such as Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska oppose any tax increases.
In sum, moderate Democrats argue that Obama is departing too far from the political center and this move to the left will hurt him and other members of his party in 2012.
A leading advocate of that centrist position is pollster and Democratic strategist Mark Penn, who was a senior adviser to President Bill Clinton in his 1996 re-election campaign and to Hillary Rodham Clinton’s presidential campaign in 2008. In an essay for the Huffington Post, Penn argues that, “Barack Obama is careening down the wrong path toward reelection. He should be working as a president, not a candidate. He should be claiming the vital center, not abandoning it. He should be holding down taxes, rather than raising them. He should be mastering the global economy, not running away from it. And most of all, he should be bringing the country together rather than dividing it through class warfare.”

Lord a-mercy, Ken. Mary Landrieu is from Louisiana, and is going to defend the bottom line of the oil and gas industries as a matter of constituent services as much as ideology. It has nothing to do with being a “centrist,” and does not represent the views of anyone else who is not equally beholden to fossil-fuel energy interests. Aside from being perpetually to the right of virtually every other Democrat in the Senate, Ben Nelson is a highly endangered incumbent up for re-election in a deeply red state; of course he’s going to object to anything and everything Obama says and does.
As for Penn, anyone taking his opinion to account as representing anyone other than himself and his corporate clients needs to remember that the position on taxes that now supposedly makes the president anathema to “centrists” is not only the same one that Obama consistently promoted during the 2008 campaign, but the same one promoted by Penn’s boss Hillary Clinton. Obama hasn’t shifted at all; Mark Penn has.
It seems reasonably clear, moreover, that Obama’s much-ballyhooed “shift to the left” is really little more than a change in strategy–or arguably, a pivot anticipated by his strategy all along–to reflect the fact that he’s gotten all the mileage he’s ever going to get from promoting bipartisanship in the face of obdurate Republican opposition, and it’s time to draw lines in anticipation of 2012. People supposedly representing the “left” and the “center” in the Democratic Party have often disagreed violently on Obama’s strategy, but it’s doubtful they do at this particular moment.
Barack Obama himself probably represents the views of Democratic “centrists” about as much as any politician presently does. And from what I regularly read and hear, if there are “Democratic centrist” dissenters from Obama’s general direction, they are more rather than less likely to think he remains too accommodating to conservative opinion on taxes and a variety of other issues.
And if there is some Penn-Landrieu-Nelson bloc in the Democratic Party, it could easily meet at one of Burson-Marsteller’s smaller conference rooms, with plenty of space at the table for interns and lunch.

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