The Phony Rift With “Clintonites”

BuzzFeed’s Zeke Miller has thrown together one of the flimsiest excuses for a trumped-up political “story” I’ve seen in quite some time–and that’s saying a lot. Check it out:

Former aides to President Bill Clinton are calling for a dramatic shift in their party’s economic message before the November election, warning of an “impossible headwind in November,” if they continue on their current path.

The two political operations — Clinton and Obama — have never seen eye-to-eye, and now some of the top voices of the Democratic 1990s have shifted into open criticism of a political operation they cast as overly negative and reactive, and failing to offer a positive set of plans for the economy.

Clinton’s 1992 campaign pollster, Stan Greenberg, and his former campaign manager, Democratic operative James Carville, raised alarm today about President Barack Obama’s economic message in a memo written with pollster Erica Seifert for Democracy Corps….

“What is clear from this fresh look at public consciousness on the economy is how difficult this period has been for both non-college-educated and college-educated voters — and how vulnerable the prevailing narratives articulated by national Democratic leaders are,” they write. “We will face an impossible headwind in November if we do not move to a new narrative, one that contextualizes the recovery but, more importantly, focuses on what we will do to make a better future for the middle class.”

The election, they add, is not a vote on economic performance, but on which candidate has the best prescription for the future. They advise a program of new taxes on people earning more than $200,000, and new spending aimed at securing the future of the American middle class.

Former Clinton pollster and strategist Doug Schoen — brought in by Clinton to replace Greenberg in a rightward tack after the 1994 midterms — echoed the memo’s conclusions in an email to BuzzFeed.

“They are absolutely correct. [Democrats] must talk about the future. [I] may have a different view of the message than they have, but they couldn’t be more correct. [Democrats] must talk outcomes and benefits to win,” he said.

But pollster Mark Penn, Schoen’s former partner and a member of Clinton’s inner circle in the White House and later a force on Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, said Obama needs more than just a new message — but also a new economic plan.

I suppose you could truthfully say that all these “Clintonites” are offering critical advice to Obama, but lumping it into some Clintonian perspective that dates back to 2008 is just crazy wrong. As readers of their Democracy Corps memo know, Greenberg and Carville are not telling Obama his campaign message is too “negative and reactive.” They are very specifically telling him to tear Mitt Romney a new one, tie him to the Ryan budget, and also campaign on higher taxes for the very wealthy–you know, the levels that prevailed when Bill Clinton was president. Fox Democrats Doug Schoen wants Obama to campaign like a Fox Democrat–i.e., a Republican. And Mark Penn has most notably identified himself with the Wall Street Democrat campaign to convince Obama not to pursue “class warfare” themes–which is diametrically opposed to the advice offered by Greenberg and Carville.

So Miller seems to have clipped a couple of selective quotes from the Democracy Corps memo, distorted them a bit, run them by Schoen and Penn, cut them off when they tried to do anything other than express some sort of agreement, and built himself a “Clintonian critique.” The only thing that surprises me is that he didn’t (as many conservative writers have done) drag in Harold Ford and Corey Booker to reinforce the phony case that there’s some wholesale revolt of Clintonistas (excluding, of course, nearly everyone who actually served in the Clinton administration, including Hillary Clinton), capped by the assertion that the Big Dog himself secretly wants Obama to cozy up to Mitt Romney and cut some big budget deal with Paul Ryan.

Maybe it’s because I view myself as something of a Clintonite that this crap makes me crazy. Schoen was never really a “Clintonite,” Penn’s loyalties often follow his corporate clients, and Greenberg and Carville probably don’t agree with either of these people on much of anything these days. Zeke Miller should know better, and if he does, then this post is pure agitprop.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.