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Mark Penn's "old School" Politics

Via Ben Smith, this New York Observer interview with Leon Panetta is sort of worth your time. Most interesting portion:

Mr. Panetta, who served as chief of staff in the White House from July 1994 to January 1997, and who has contributed $2000 to Mrs. Clinton’s presidential campaign, complained that Mr. Penn “is a political pollster from the past.”

”I never considered him someone who would run a national campaign for the presidency,” he said.

He asserted that Mr. Penn “comes from an old school, like Karl Rove—it’s all about dividing people into smaller groups rather than taking the broader approach that was needed.”

The idea of microtargeting--which is what Panetta's refering to--really took off during the 2004 election. (Actually, it took off much earlier than that--probably in the '80s in the private sector, and certainly by the '90s in the political sphere. But it didn't become a kind of popular fascination till the 2000s, and the political press didn't really jump on it till 2004.) Which is to say, if you were going to toss around labels like "old school" and "cutting edge," I think you'd be more inclined to call Rove and Penn the latter, and Obama the former (to the extent that he has a broad, unifying message, rather than narrowly targeting different demographics). It's cable and niche-marketing versus a throwback, network kind of candidate.

But, in a way, I think Panetta's onto something. Penn's view of politics is very transactional/coalitional, which is a view that's been around for as long as people have been getting elected (think urban political machines), whereas Obama's is more inspirational (with reformist, progressive roots). So while Penn's ideas about campaign mechanics seem newish, he's actually on the losing side (in this case at least) of a pretty old debate.   

P.S. That's why I'm willing to cut Penn some slack on the fact that, as Jon Chait points out in this issue, he now bashes upscale, educated voters and extols the virtues of working stiffs after a career spent doing the opposite. It's true that Penn's feelings toward these groups seem strangely tied to their feelings about Hillary Clinton. On the other hand, Penn has been pretty consistent in his transactional view of politics. Even when his candidates courted upscale suburbanites, they weren't trying to inspire them. They were trying to buy them off (e.g., school uniforms and v-chips). The only thing that's different this time around is the market niche he's catering to.

--Noam Scheiber