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.

What, then, does Obama do? Either he casts his lot with the Democratic congressional majority, taking its priorities as his own. Or he decides to make a sincere effort to draw the GOP in--which means accepting some Republican legislative proposals. If Republicans are clever, the stimulus package is hardly the last time Obama will have to make such a choice.

In 2001, George W. Bush ceded vast influence to Senator Ted Kennedy in crafting the "No Child Left Behind" education reform bill, to the consternation of many conservatives. Subsequently, he mainly gave the GOP congressional majority its way, especially on spending, but also on a long string of social-issues legislation that became the most salient element of the GOP congressional brand going into the majority-losing 2006 election. Neither strategy was especially palatable to the players: the first mainly for reasons internal to the GOP; the second because of a popular perception of GOP excess.

That's the dilemma in a nutshell: internal party division or a drift toward partisan excess. There is no obvious solution, for the simple reason that the president's interests and the congressional majority's interests diverge even if they are from the same party.

When the Democratic House majority has given Republicans no say, they have an opportunity to vote "no" precisely because they have had no say--and then knock on the White House door to complain. If the GOP becomes more sophisticated in its approach, its House leaders will become more systematic in fleshing out alternatives to Democratic legislation and doing their best to be seen offering their proposals to Obama as a starting point for post-partisan compromise.

Then comes the interesting hypothetical question of what to do if Obama says yes. The answer is that you've got to make a good-faith effort to do a deal.

That may bother some of those for whom ideological purity in opposition is top priority (and who have misconstrued the House GOP stimulus vote in those terms). But they will be able to take partial consolation in three areas: First, the ensuing legislation will be more conservative (or at least less liberal) than any conceivable alternative. Second, the GOP will have a persuasive case to take to voters that its proposals are more reasonable than those of congressional Democrats. Third, if the White House and the Democratic congressional leadership are at odds, the certain result will be turmoil among Democrats.

No political strategy is cost-free. The advantage of Triangulation II is that its focus on process enables Republicans to advance ideas they want in contrast to the legislative druthers of congressional Democrats. These can include pro-market measures, spending restraint, tax cuts, and general opposition to the return of big, bureaucratic government.

It seems unlikely that Obama will ultimately want to make many deals that cut the GOP in, but his post-partisan rhetoric has created an opening. Republicans will make the most of it by taking him at his word and asking for a place at the table--and by voting "no," with their own proposals in hand, when they don't get one.

Tod Lindberg, a WEEKLY STANDARD contributing editor, is a fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution and editor of Policy Review.