The Magazine

Triangulation II

A political strategy for congressional Republicans.

Feb 9, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 19 • By TOD LINDBERG
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The singular advantage of being in the opposition is that the majority has to make the first move, and unlike chess, going first conveys no advantage the majority doesn't already enjoy. What was striking last week about the House's consideration of the stimulus package was the glimpse it offered of a potentially valuable political strategy for Republicans. Call it "Triangulation II"--the GOP effort to gain advantage by dividing Democrats in Congress from President Obama.

In its previous incarnation, you will recall, triangulation was the strategy Bill Clinton pursued when faced with a new GOP congressional majority in 1995. The idea was to assume a posture of reasonableness between what he portrayed as two extremes: the big-government liberalism of congressional Democrats and the right-wing radicalism of the GOP. Clinton decided he could do business with the congressional majority where he was broadly supportive of the result and where public opinion was favorable (welfare reform, tax cuts, spending restraint), while at the same time painting himself as tamping down GOP excess. But he could oppose the GOP outright when it overstepped (the government shutdown). He decided explicitly not to make the cause of congressional Democrats his own. The political realm in 1995-96 had three distinct poles: the GOP congressional majority, the Democratic minority, and the Democratic White House.

Triangulation II is going to be somewhat different because of the different political balance of power, but the essential idea is the same: to obtain advantage by substituting a tripartite configuration for the bipolar partisan split. Republicans will try to portray themselves as reasonable, responsive, and serious not in comparison with Democrats in general, but in comparison with liberal House and Senate Democrats--a case they will make by taking seriously Obama's professed desire to put bitter partisan divisions aside.

It's important not to misunderstand the character of the unanimous GOP House vote (with 11 Democrats joining) against the stimulus package. Left-leaning commentators have decried the GOP for still not "getting it"--that their policies and preferences have been discredited by events and repudiated by voters. Conservative commentators, meanwhile, have tended to interpret the vote as the rediscovery of true conservative principle: making a stand for what's right after years of vacillation and uncertainty. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given that both sides are viewing the question through their respective ideological prisms, their conclusions are analytically identical; the difference is whether you describe the result as virtuous or wicked.

They're also mainly wrong. The reason Republicans voted unanimously against the package is that they had no say in the drafting of the legislation. The bill was entirely the product of the House Democratic leadership, which relied on the prerogative of absolute majority rule in the lower chamber to craft a bill without GOP input or even consultation.

No doubt, Democrats hoped for and may even have expected some GOP support for the bill, if not from Republicans' finally "getting it," then from the minority party's fear of opposing the wishes of a popular new president in a time of national crisis. And that is where the Democratic miscalculation comes in. Yes, the new president is popular. Yes, something must be done. But Obama's popularity doesn't necessarily transfer to Democrats in Congress. And it does not follow that because the Democratic House majority has the power to offer its own answer to the question of what must be done that the answer is presumptively correct.

House Republican leaders were quite astute politically to remind Obama of his post-partisan or trans-partisan aspirations at their White House meeting before the vote. In the game of Triangulation II, he is cast as a potentially reasonable player and one whose heart is in the right, bipartisan place. Republicans want to work with him, but that has to mean more than voting in favor of legislation they had no part in crafting. It is up to Obama to make a choice between accommodating the wishes of congressional Democrats and of being true to his aspirations.

And about the wishes of congressional Democrats: The more independent voters hear about the details of the stimulus package, especially the many elements that have next to nothing to do with stimulating the economy, the less they seem to like it. Democrats put the legislation out there, and Republicans now have ample opportunity to criticize it in all its hideous detail. This affords them the opportunity to describe how they would have stimulated the economy differently and better--and with a little polling and focus-group research, more popularly.