Penn, Inc.

A debate is unfolding in the print pages of the latest Prospect as well as on Tapped about Hillary Clinton's merits as a Democratic presidential candidate. I'll avoid jumping in directly here, but one line from Sam Rosenfeld and Matthew Yglesias's print piece is worth singling out for emphasis:

The news that Mark Penn is serving as Clinton's pollster and key political adviser ... should send shivers down the spine of any liberal. Penn's idée fixe since the 1990s has been the invention of new "swing" groups composed of prosperous white men ("wired workers," "office-park dads," etc.) for the purposes of arguing that the Democratic Party should become less economically progressive.

There is a small error in this account: While Penn did indeed invent the male category of "office-park dads" (all these evanescent categories are defined by Penn on the fly so they can never be tested), he has generally put more emphasis on winning over prosperous white women than on men. A year ago he published an op-ed in which he said, "In 1996 we identified soccer moms as the critical swing voters. Today they remain at the center of the swing vote, but they're a decade older and their kids are going off to college." This claim is inseparable from Penn's case for Clinton's electability: Well-off white women love her, well-off white women are the only voters who matter, therefore ...

I will admit to being a little obsessed with Penn, partly because I think his focus on these dubious sub-segments of affluent swing voters has hugely limited the possibilities for inspiring, ambitious, purposeful politics in the last decade. (And its corollary assumption that all lower-income voters are unmovable -- either locked to one party or to non-voting -- was proven wrong by Karl Rove in 2004 and Rahm Emanuel in 2006.) It is that sentence -- "soccer moms' ... kids are going off to college" -- that captures why almost every Democratic pol seems to have become convinced that our most important domestic priority is to make college tuition tax deductible. Given all the problems in the world, this is a staggeringly irresponsible policy, since it wouldn't help a single kid go to college who is not already attending college and would disproportionately benefit the well-off.

But I digress. The bottom line is I kind of keep track of Penn. And like every good Washingtonian with a few million dollars in mortgages, he seems to hold at least three jobs at once: He's Senator Clinton's pollster and political advisor. He runs his own corporate polling firm, Penn, Schoen and Berland. And, finally, he is the "Worldwide President and CEO" of Burson-Marsteller, the fifth largest public relations firm in the world. That's a big title, and it seems like it would be a big job. Prowl around the Burson-Marsteller web site, and you'll see that it's a company that does lots of things.

One that might be of interest to liberals thinking about whether to support Clinton is "Labor Relations." In this section, Senator Clinton's top advisor's company says, "Companies cannot be caught unprepared by Organized Labor's coordinated campaigns whether they are in conjunction with organizing or contract negotiating ... That is why we have developed a comprehensive communications approach for clients when they face any type of labor situation."

But the real prize on the Burson-Marsteller web site is the one substantive product headlined on the front page: "The Mom-fluentials Research." Who are "Mom-fluentials"? They seem to be the ultimate Penn category -- and indeed, Penn calls them "the single most important new emerging market segment." They are soccer moms who are also wired workers -- sort of a group of wired-office-park-soccer moms. Like soccer moms and wired workers, they are identified using "a proprietary formula" developed by Penn.

Basically, Mom-fluentials seem to be wealthy, perfectionist busy-bodies. We're told, for example, that where regular non-fluential moms use e-mail to send jokes, mom-fluentials send coupons or product recommendations. They "generate WOM and shape key buying decisions." If you're a parent, you've probably seen a few mom-fluentials -- they're the ones you avoid on your way into school. Unless you actually want some coupons or product recommendations.

There's a lot of stuff on mom-fluentials all over the internet, though it all goes back to a single Penn survey. The best is this marvelous FAQ, in which the answers are delivered by a robotic avatar of a mom-fluential, with short blond hair and pearls, and a flat mechanical voice. I kept expecting the robo-mom-fluential to invite me to join some sort of national conversation.

I really am not against Senator Clinton or her presidential candidacy. But I really would like to be rid of Mark Penn and the kind of unimaginative, narrow -- and narrowing -- thinking that he signifies in American politics.

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