Mark Penn and Mark Halperin agree: Economic justice is bad politics

If Mark Penn and Mark Halperin are against it, his decision to endorse a millionaires' tax was obviously right

Topics: 2012 Elections, War Room, Barack Obama, Media Criticism,

Mark Penn and Mark Halperin agree: Economic justice is bad politicsMark Penn and Mark Halperin

Corporate CEO Mark Penn is very disappointed in Barack Obama for embracing “class warfare,” a term rich people use when they are worried that someone will actually indulge the public’s desire to see them pay more taxes. Penn, the head of cartoonishly evil P.R. firm Burson-Marsteller, wrote a little Huffington Post column warning the president that he will surely lose reelection if he “abandons” the “vital center.”

This is how Penn’s twisted idea of political causality:

But when Bill Clinton was facing the fight of his political life in his 1996 re-election, he got rid of all the class warfare language used by traditional Democrats, got behind welfare reform and the balanced budget, and supported a strong, activist government that spent and taxed less rather than more. As a result, Clinton trounced the Republican nominee and was the first Democrat to serve a full eight years since Roosevelt. And the country got behind the president.

Obama’s team actually believes that in the last six months they have courted independent voters and that didn’t work, so now they are turning to activating the base with higher taxes on the wealthy. However, he never made any meaningful appeal to those voters in terms they would understand. He supported extending the Bush tax cuts, temporarily zoomed up in the polls, and then promptly repudiated what he had done, only to then fall back down.

In Penn’s world, Bill Clinton won reelection because of welfare reform, and Barack Obama’s poll numbers have fallen not because of the unemployment rate, but because he announced that he supports allowing the Bush tax cuts to expire.

It should go without saying that there’s no evidence that a “move to the center” led to Bill Clinton’s reelection. This is basically magical thinking. Mark Penn does not understand politics very well, so I can understand why he explains events with imaginary stories about intangible “narrative” shifts, but the fact is that Bill Clinton won because incumbent presidents win when voters are satisfied with their personal financial situations.

Did the policy decisions Bill Clinton made after he “moved to the center” lead to the growth in per-capita disposable income that caused him to win reelection? If you think the answer is yes, that would be a proper argument to make about what Barack Obama should or shouldn’t do. But Mark Penn doesn’t have an answer to that question, because “what effects do specific policies have on real people” is not a question that concerns him.

Penn’s conclusion is even more confused. He never once specifically explains what Obama has proposed that constitutes “class warfare,” but he seems to be upset about Obama’s decision to embrace Warren Buffett’s suggestion that there be a millionaire’s tax bracket. Here’s what Penn would’ve done differently:

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“The president could be out there with tax reform that promotes America’s greatest asset — the country’s hard working and ever successful professionals — and yet raises funds by closing the gap on taxes on capital. He could have tax reform that righted the balance between capital and wage income without opening up class warfare.”

Wait, so, raising the capital gains tax isn’t class warfare, even though the principle is exactly the same? And even though raising the capital gains tax is also considered “class warfare” by every Republican in the country? Right. OK.

Penn doesn’t even understand campaigns, let alone policy. He is more responsible than perhaps any other individual for the fact that Hillary Clinton is not the president right now. (He didn’t even know that Democrats don’t have winner-take-all primaries.) Hillary Clinton, by the way, still owes Penn $289,010 for his work losing her the Democratic nomination for president — she has, remarkably, been steadily paying him off instead of telling him to go hang himself.

His simplistic, childlike interpretation of politics is exactly what makes him the sort of thinker Mark Halperin really admires. That’s why Halperin said Penn’s silly column was “essential reading” at his Time blog.

Penn has few fans in Obama World, and this piece won’t make him any new ones. It is notable that Penn highlights in particular the under noticed tax increase in Obamacare. More generally, his warning that Obama is going left when he should be going center finds support throughout much of the New Democratic realm.

Penn has few fans in any world, because he’s an unpleasant hack whose only political skill is taking credit for other people’s victories. But yes, Obama should definitely somehow go even centerer, that always works. I’m sure that with millions of people out of work while rich people continue to get richer every minute, voters will definitely reward a Democrat who refuses to argue that millionaires should pay their fair share.

Alex Pareene
Alex Pareene writes about politics for Salon and is the author of "The Rude Guide to Mitt." Email him at and follow him on Twitter @pareene

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