The point many have made is that Penn is off base when he says:
"We might all learn a lesson from Bill Clinton in 1992. He won by making the
Persian Gulf War irrelevant to the election. "
The first Gulf War was OVER in 1992. It had been well-planned, well-argued for, and had received multilateral support, and whatever people now think about the wisdom of leaving Saddam in place and abandoning the Shiite rebellion, in '92 there was consensus in the U.S. that the war had been a success. The present Iraq war is ablaze with controversy. It just seems silly to advise Kerry to shy away from Iraq as an issue. Bush went so far out on a limb, and with such troubling results so far, it was just dense for Kerry and Edwards not to confront Bush about it.
A few general observations: Mr. Penn, for obvious self-interested reasons, is making the case for a very poll-centered approach to campaigning. It's a silly conceit of mine that a "real" statesman would campaign and govern on principle, not pander to voters based on poll results. (Not just a conceit of mine--it's no accident when Bush boasts that he doesn't look at polls or focus group data.) But I think there are good reasons not to put enormous faith in polls that examine specific issues or divide us too finely into demographic segments (e.g. middle-aged white suburban women).
Polls are simply not as accurate as they used to be, for one thing. Americans have polled and telemarketed to death, the rate of response to polls and surveys has dropped considerably in the last decade or two (I believe this is true in marketing and social science contexts as well, not just politics), so for statistical reasons polls are less reliable. (I would welcome comments on this observation.)
I think what Penn is describing is the famous Clintonian art of triangulation. Some phrases that come to my mind are "awfully cute," "threading the needle," and "somewhat defeatist." It just seems to me that triangulation presumes (excessively) that the public is hostile to a progressive message, and the best result triangulation aims for is a 51-49 victory. Bill Clinton could perform this juggling act, shading the message differently for different audiences, and keeping the Democratic base just happy enough while offering goodies to the moderates in the general election. But campaigners as talented as Bill Clinton don't come along very often.
Maybe I'm not hearing reason about this, but I still don't accept the main premise of the column. I think there is more to be gained from drawing clear lines, rousing the base, and doing get-out-the-vote activities than from fetishizing swing voters, be they soccer moms or office park dads or whatever the hell.
Penn counsels the Kerry campaign to be positive and avoid "insults." I would reply that it is not an insult to look at Bush's performance and give it the harsh verdict that it objectively deserves. Also, to me, an aspect of being positive is really trying to unify us, and promote a common vision that applies to everybody.