Triangulation

TRIANGULATION…. At a press conference earlier this week, President Obama offered a rather passionate defense of compromise and incremental progress to his critics on the left, which, not surprisingly, was not well received by his critics on the left.

Politico‘s Ben Smith initially called the president’s comments a “clear” example of “triangulation.” A day later, Ben walked this back a bit.

A White House official e-mailed yesterday to dispute my labeling President Obama’s rebuke to liberal critics yesterday “triangulation.”

Obama, the official noted, was “responding to several very loud voices from the left.” Triangulation, by contrast, “is an intentional political strategy to win favor with swing voters by pushing off the left. That’s not what the President is doing, and that’s not our strategy.”

The official has a point: Obama is not, as were Dick Morris and Bill Clinton when the term was coined, scanning the headlines for over-the-top liberals on whom to launch unprovoked presidential surprise attacks, a la Sister Souljah.

This led to quite a few interesting items about the president’s approach and whether it’s triangulation or not. I thought I’d add my two cents, too.

Part of the problem is that there is no agreed-upon definition of what constitutes a triangulation strategy. Jonathan Bernstein offered a reasonable argument that the word itself is just a consultant-driven “advertising slogan.” Bernstein added, “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.”

Perhaps, but I tend to think there’s an actual political strategy lurking just below the hype on the surface. Triangulation is, to my mind, an above-the-fray, third-way tack on steroids — present the public with disdain for two unpopular teams (congressional Democrats and congressional Republicans), and position yourself as being superior to both, by criticizing both.

The Clinton/Morris approach wasn’t just consultant smoke and mirrors — the then-president really did put distance between his White House and the left as part of a deliberate strategy. When liberals criticized him, Clinton and his team found this valuable, because it allowed them to exploit liberal rebukes to help Clinton appeal to moderates and “independents.”

Not surprisingly, opinions vary widely on the point, but this appears to have no resemblance to what Obama is doing now, even with his angry remarks on Tuesday. In fact, I think it’s largely the opposite on triangulation.

Obama doesn’t welcome liberal attacks; he’s frustrated by them. Obama isn’t going out of his way to say he disagrees with liberals; he’s making an effort to say he agrees with liberals, but feels the need to make concessions to move his agenda forward. Right or wrong, the president wants the left’s support, and thinks he’s earned it.

Much of the left disagrees, obviously, but the larger point is that this bears absolutely no resemblance to Dick Morris’ advice in the mid ’90s. In a triangulation model, the leader tells the public, “Those folks and I aren’t on the same page.” In Obama’s model, the president is telling the public, “Those folks and I should be on the same page.”

Even in the tax deal with congressional Republicans, note that the president isn’t even trying to suggest he likes the concessions. It’s not as if the White House is pitching the notion that the agreement “incorporates the best ideas from both parties.” On the contrary, the president and his team continue to express their disdain for the elements they dislike — considering them a necessary evil after being forced to negotiate with hostage takers. Some Dems don’t believe him, but Obama has even vowed to make sure these cuts for the rich expire in two years.

Maybe they got a good deal; maybe not. Maybe the concessions the White House won are enough; maybe not. Either way, there are plenty of words available to describe this week’s efforts, but triangulation shouldn’t be one of them.