Friday, December 10, 2010

Catch of the Day

Mori Dinauer:
Isn't "Triangulation" Just Another Way of Saying "Makes Political Deals?"

I've seen a variety of attempts at defining triangulation over the last few days; Dinauer's is my favorite by far.  What is triangulation, really?  I'll tell you, and you'll enjoy it, but first I'll make you sit through a couple of paragraphs about how bills pass in different contexts. 

With unified government, the best course for a president is usually to pass legislation by mobilizing his party.  That's pretty much what Barack Obama did during the 111th Congress.  The trick is going to be, always, to keep the handful at the extreme left (for a Democrat) happy while also appealing to the 218th most liberal Member of the House and the 60th most liberal Senator.  Barack Obama may have, in some sense, wanted to be bipartisan or postpartisan or whatever, but the easiest coalition for almost everything he wanted to get done was going to be highly partisan.

When there's divided government, the calculus changes. While it's still possible that there will be issues in which the easiest winning coalition is constructed beginning with the left and moving to the center, there are other potential available coalitions that involve finding things that both sides really want that the other side doesn't mind that much.  That's obviously the case with the tax cut deal: liberals don't care nearly as much about tax rates for the rich as do conservatives (yes, they care a lot -- but not nearly as much).  Conservatives do not, it seems likely, oppose UI extension nearly as much as liberals favor it.  What this all boils down to is that in the next Congress, there are going to be things that pass with the support of both John Boehner and Barack Obama, and perhaps without the support of some Democrats.  Or else, nothing is going to pass at all.

Now, what's "triangulation" in that context?  Nothing.  Triangulation is an advertising slogan coined by Dick Morris to advertise himself -- to give him as large a share of the credit for Bill Clinton's 1996 re-election as possible.  That's all.  Trying to find any deeper meaning in it is like trying to find the deeper meaning in "Coke Adds Life" or "Tiger in Your Tank."   Might be interesting to do it, but it's not going to tell you much about soft drinks, gasoline, or politics.

That's what those sort of people -- Dick Morris, Karl Rove, James Carville -- do; they make up fancy slogans or theories or whatever as a way of claiming that their mysterious voodoo is irreplaceable.  Now, some are good at what they do, and some are not so good, but the truth is they are for the most part interchangeable; it's mostly luck about who happens to be in the right chair when the music stops.  That is, as much as I do happen to enjoy listening to Carville talk, if his presidential race had been Dukakis '88 or Mondale '84 instead of Clinton '92 (or even if it had been Harkin '92 or Kerrey '92), well, no one would think that crazy guy who looks and talks funny was a genius.  And Carville, I suspect, was awful good at what he did.  Dick Morris?  Has Dick Morris ever said anything that made you believe he was good at anything other than self-promotion?

So: liberals were frustrated in 2009-2010 because Barack Obama had to get Ben Nelson on board, and they're going to be furious sometimes in 2011-2012 because Obama is going to find things that get John Boehner on board.  Liberals, of course, should do what they can to fight for what they want, and make sure that deals that are made are the best deals they can get.  But as for trying to figure out what triangulation is and whether Obama is doing it...well, you're better off trying to figure out whether Danica Patrick is really that into Go Daddy. 


  1. Jonathan, to me "triangulation" does have some meaning, associated with its scummy coiner. It does not connote the kind of deal Obama just struck, or Clinton's slugfests over Medicare/caid costs or welfare reform. It makes me think "school uniforms" and other bullshit snippets that I think Morris did help Clinton come up with. Or do I just think that because I read Morris's scummy self-serving book?

  2. You've described the good kind of "triangulation." The bad kind, which is probably what most people think of when the hear the word, is when a politician co-opts the position of the other party. Think Clinton/welfare reform or Bush/Medicare Part D, not Reagan/tax reform or Obama/tax deal.

    Here's how I'd define the "bad kind" of triangulation: it's when the pol actually moves substantively in between the parties' respective positions on a given issue, in an attempt to appeal to moderate voters of both parties. It doesn't involve horse trading or deal-making, it just involves staking out a position in the political center.

    I'm not actually saying this kind of triangulation is bad policy, just that it has a bad reputation, presumably because it reeks of political expediency and lack of principle.

  3. Another way of looking at triangulation, at least as it was practiced by Bill Clinton, is as a specifically New Democratic technique of playing conservative Republicans off against liberal Democrats to pass "third way" policies that a president favors on the merits. That, I think, is what this post is getting at:

  4. OK, that's three comments and if I count correctly four different version of "triangulation." None of which were the one that the WH spokesperson used today. Really, folks, there's a point in debating what Obama is trying to do in any particular case, but adding the term "triangulation" to it isn't helping anyone understand anything.

    BTW, I'm still only ~250 pages into Taylor Dark's Clinton book...I'm curious how Dick Morris will look in it.

  5. OK, that's three comments and if I count correctly four different version of "triangulation." None of which were the one that the WH spokesperson used today.

    Wrong. Here is what Pfeiffer said:

    "Triangulation, as I understand it, is an intentional political strategy to win favor with swing voters by pushing off the left"

    Gibbs also used the word yesterday:

    "Do you want me to say triangulate?" White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said to laughter in the briefing room Thursday when reporters pressed him on whether President Obama's position on the tax cut deal is a signal that he plans to move to the political center.

    Pfeiffer and Gibbs are both using "triangulate" in the manner suggested by myself and Lone Wolf: that is, a substantive move to the center. It does NOT mean cutting deals where both sides get something they want (which is Minauer's definition, which you described as "perfect").

  6. Dick Morris is credited with coining this use of the term "triangulation," but I found a possible earlier instant of it in a 1985 article by William Safire:,6505385

  7. Andrew:"The bad kind, which is probably what most people think of when the hear the word, is when a politician co-opts the position of the other party. Think Clinton/welfare reform or Bush/Medicare Part D, not Reagan/tax reform or Obama/tax deal."

    In Canada the Liberal Party had always been the party of free trade and the Progressive Conservative Party had always been the party of economic protectionism and tariffs. Mid '80s Mulroney became leader of PC's and when elected PM stole the Liberal free trade policy, and NAFTA was result. Triangulation.
    (Like Republicans confronted with Obama stealing their health care ideas, the Liberal Party promptly adopted what had been the PC policy and opposed NAFTA negotiations.)

  8. I think the emphasis in what Pfeiffer said is the "pushing off" part; the idea is that a Dem president would deliberately attack Democrats in order to get popular. That's a different idea than just moving to the center of the two parties, or the idea of finding something different than what either party is saying.

  9. Jonathan: That's Taylor Branch's book you are referring to. Taylor Dark wrote a book on unions and the Democrats (also worth reading).

  10. Oops. You are, of course, correct.


  11. tomato tomato, in simple terms, it's trying to make the best case you can to the most people so you can to meet an objective.

  12. Wrong!

    Triangulation is a PR effort. Obama is the phony triangulator, how else can anyone explain how he managed to split his own caucus?

    He's either hopelessly inept or a Monopolist stooge. (I vote 'both').

    For Clinton, 'triangulation' was a big word that had two meanings: 'lucky' when it didn't mean 'conniving'.

  13. It means to deceive both sides and play them against each other. Its a type of covert op.
    Kind of like deceiving the Israeli leadership that you have their basic interest to survive as a priority, while funding Arafat and Hamas's capacity to obliterate them.
    Oslo was a 'Triangualtion'. A 'set up'.


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