I was struck by the question that Mark Penn asks in his column, “Turning to the left or the center?” What would public relations executive and former Clinton advisor Penn, who claims to represent the political center, have to say about the choices facing the Obama administration? Penn is no dummy, and I was not disappointed.  He doesn’t have any answers, but what he says bears out the confusion that clouds the debate about the political center. 

Penn poses the questions in this manner: “Is the administration for or against waging the Afghanistan war on an all-out basis, including taking down the Taliban? Are jobs or regulating Wall Street its top priority? Should the insurance [and] drug companies be reined in or an accommodation reached?”  

And he answers the questions: “As a longtime centrist Democrat, I would like to see the president make creating jobs his top domestic priority, I would encourage an incremental approach on health care that did not cost so much upfront and I believe staying strong in Afghanistan — the country that harbored those who directly attacked New York and Washington — is pivotal to being regarded seriously by our foes.” 

Is this really centrism? If you strip away the positives and look at the negatives, what Penn is advising is that Obama forget about financial regulation, forget about reining in the insurance and drug companies, and escalate the war in Afghanistan. That sounds a lot like a policy you might hear from, say, Rep. Eric Cantor or Sen. Mitch McConnell rather than from Sen. Olympia Snowe or Sen. Bill Nelson.  It doesn’t represent an accommodation with moderate Democrats, but with conservative Republicans. 

As posed, at least two of the three choices are phony.  Does Obama really face a choice between increasing jobs and regulating Wall Street? Is regulating Wall Street going to cost jobs? Is the public demanding that he go soft on Wall Street and focus on a jobs bill? Hardly. If Penn had posed the choice between focusing on jobs and on climate change, he might have had a case to make. But his choice is phony.  It represents a back door rationale for abandoning financial regulatory reform. 

Ditto his health care choices. If Penn’s centrist alternative is to have a bill that would cost less, that could be achieved, among other things, by doing exactly what he attributes to the left: reining in insurance and drug companies. A bill that doesn’t do this will prove more costly and more politically damaging. As for his final choice – between “taking down” the Taliban and not fighting the war on an “all-out basis,”  that is not primarily a choice that divides left and right, or left and center.  It is about feasibility: whether the U.S. can summon the political and military resources to “take down” the Taliban.   If the administration were torn between an “anti-war” left and a “pro-war” center, the debate would have been settled a long time ago.