The Penn isn’t mightier than much of anything

THE PENN ISN’T MIGHTIER THAN MUCH OF ANYTHING…. Democratic pollster Mark Penn has an op-ed in the Washington Post today, ostensibly trying to apply lessons from the British election to American politics, with more than a few flaws. Jon Chait’s takedown is fairly devastating, in a polite kind of way.

Of particular interest, though, is Penn’s belief that there’s a veritable army of “independent” voters who — wouldn’t you know it — think just like he does, and would make a powerful third party for American politics.

While the country is moving to the center and record numbers are registering as independents, the Republicans are effectively being driven, and pressured, by Sarah Palin, and the Democrats by MoveOn.org…. More and more candidates, especially self-funders, are considering the independent option.

There is also a structural problem — socially liberal and fiscally conservative voters believe, especially after what happened with health care, that they have no clear choice: They must sign on with the religious right or the economic left. It is just a matter of time before they demand their own movement or party.

There are a few problems here — OK, more than a few — but let’s touch on the most glaring.

First, Penn characterizes “independents” as a relatively cohesive group of like-minded centrists, turned off by liberal Dems and conservative Republicans. That’s both lazy and wrong, as has been made clear over and over again.

Second, if Penn thinks MoveOn.org is driving the Democratic Party’s policy agenda, he’s really not paying attention. Indeed, MoveOn.org is routinely frustrated by the Democratic Party’s policy agenda, and wishes it were far more progressive.

Third, Penn’s assertion — that independents are largely made up of those who are socially liberal and fiscally conservative — isn’t bolstered by any evidence at all.

And this may be an esoteric point, but at this point, I’m also not at all sure what “fiscally conservative” even means anymore. I can’t help but get the feeling the phrase is no longer of any value in contemporary politics. Was the economic recovery package “fiscally conservative”? Well, sort of. How about the Affordable Care Act, which will cut the deficit by over a trillion dollars over the next couple of decades? The implication is that Republicans are “fiscally conservative,” but can anyone think of the last time the GOP approved a fiscally conservative piece of legislation? Probably not — it’s the party of higher deficits, wasteful spending, and growing the size of government.

It’s past time to replace the “fiscally conservative” phrase with a more accurate division — those who are fiscally responsible vs. those who are fiscally irresponsible.

Regardless, Chait’s conclusion seems like the right one: “Penn’s whole career is basically a long string of massaging, manipulating, or ignoring the data in order to produce the conclusion that his own preferences are popular. It’s a very, very good thing that he isn’t in the West Wing right now.”