Barack Obama’s team seems to think that demonizing the wealthy will win him back his base and let him roll to re-election. Not so fast, says Democratic strategist and former Hillary Clinton adviser Mark Penn at Huffington Post. Obama’s plan makes for great strategy, Penn says, only if the President wants to pattern his next election like that famous Democrat, Walter Mondale:
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.
The 2010 mid-term elections were fought over Obama’s healthcare plan and on his plan to raise taxes on the wealthy by ending the Bush tax cuts. The results were, in his own words, a “shellacking.” After his most recent speech to Congress, voters in New York City’s Ninth Congressional District just elected a Republican for the first time since 1920.
And now, Obama is pressing the case for higher taxes, following in the footsteps of Walter Mondale. Higher taxes always seem to poll well, but in reality the country sees that as a last resort.
Voters see it as a last resort because the call for higher taxes always seems to follow a rapid increase in spending. That was certainly true in 2010, when Democrats lost 63 seats in the House and nearly lost the Senate as well. Penn reminds the White House that the anger over spending hasn’t yet dissipated from the midterms, and Obama is now stoking even more discontent by positioning himself as a typical tax-and-spend liberal — exactly as Mondale did in 1984.
That’s not the only historical parallel, either. Penn thinks that Al Gore had the 2000 election sewed up until Gore went to his left and tried to run as a firebreathing populist. John Kerry did the same thing in 2004, Penn says, with the same result. Even in good times, voters don’t respond well to class warfare.
That will be especially true for Obama, who won in 2008 with what Penn says was a unique coalition of low- and high-income voters. Obama lost the middle-class vote but in the end transcended income classes. This latest John Edwardsesque iteration of Obama could solidify his hold on low-income voters, but he’s about to chase off everyone else.
If nothing else, Penn argues, it’s a missed opportunity to grab the center:
America wants to see the president focused on stimulating jobs and innovation, not on raising taxes in a near recession. 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. And he could be moving forward on immigration reform, on trade deals, on new policies and programs that put America at the frontier of new technologies on energy and pharmaceuticals.
Instead, the president has wandered into the thicket of class warfare that will only compound the difficulties before his climb to re-election.
Unlike Penn, I’m not sure Obama has “wandered” anywhere he didn’t already tread repeatedly. It’s not as if this is Obama’s first speech on who’s not paying their “fair share.” It may be the first time that Obama has offered explicit tax hikes that backed up his rhetoric, but let’s also recall that Obama hasn’t produced legislative language for any of his major initiatives until now. He relied on Nancy Pelosi to write the Porkulus package in 2009, and Pelosi and Harry Reid to write ObamaCare in 2009-10. Obama handed off Wall Street reform to Chris Dodd and Barney Frank. Now we’re getting a good look at Obama’s idea of specific policy, and it should surprise no one that he’s starting to look like Mondale — or even Jimmy Carter.
Penn’s essay will inevitably prompt more speculation about Hillary Clinton’s ambitions. If Hillary was to run, her platform would almost certainly look a lot like Penn’s generalized approach — and that would definitely appeal to the voters Penn rightly says Obama is chasing out of the Democratic Party coalition.