The Magazine

Triangulation II

A political strategy for congressional Republicans.

Feb 9, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 19 • By TOD LINDBERG
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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.