HRC and the Fraught History of “Triangulation”

I’m a big fan of Brian Beutler of TNR, who combines the virtues of an old-school political reporter with the analytical abilities of the better class of pundit. His latest take on what Hillary Clinton’s issue positioning signifies is fascinating and potentially important. To boil it down, Brian thinks HRC is taking popular progressive positions that are also simple to understand and very difficult for Republicans either to misrepresent or to counter. “Everybody should be able to vote” is an example; as is “There should be a path to citizenship for people willing to work for it.” The flat assertion of a simple idea makes it easier for Democrats to pin conservatives down, suggests Beutler:

Most Democrats likewise support President Barack Obama’s administrative efforts to liberalize immigration enforcement, and want to create a citizenship track for unauthorized immigrants. Republicans oppose both aims, but have been able to muddle that fact using vague procedural language. Generally speaking, it’s not the liberalization of immigration law they oppose, but the unilateral nature of Obama’s actions. They oppose amnesty, but keep the door to a nebulous “legal status” ajar. Both positions are malleable enough to allow the Republican presidential nominee to tack dramatically left in the general election, and gloss over the hostility the GOP has shown to immigrants since promising to liberalize after Obama’s reelection.

For over a year, Democrats humored the GOP’s wordplay in order to preserve the possibility of striking a legislative compromise that includes something Republicans could call “legal status.” Now that the immigration reform process has collapsed, Clinton has dispensed with the niceties. In promising to preserve Obama’s immigration policies, she called out “legal status” as a ruse. “When [Republicans] talk about legal status,” she said, ’“that is code for second-class status.” She has taken the standard Democratic position and weaponized it. Republicans can’t pretend there’s no daylight between their views and Democrats’ views, because Clinton has defined the Republican position for them, by contrast.

This all makes sense, and as Beutler says, you could see the same approach applied to other issues.

But Brian goes into this whole analysis by contrasting it with the supposed Clintonian habit of “triangulation:”

[F]or the better part of 20 years now, Bill Clinton’s presidency has been synonymous with a hazy political concept called triangulation. Since his advisers made the term famous, it has been used to describe everything from standard-issue compromise, to the willingness to confront reactionary elements in one’s own party (think Sister Souljah), to the appropriation of another political party’s policy ideas. The latter is as close to a proper definition as there is.

Brian’s willingness to concede that “triangulation” has been defined in different ways (some progressives would say it is as simple and evil as sin itself) is refreshing, but I believe he ought to acknowledge that it’s a term used almost exclusively by Clinton critics. So far as I can tell, the only Clinton defender to have used it even briefly is its inventor, the diabolical Dick Morris. But even Morris (who used it narrowly to describe Bill Clinton’s 1996 re-election strategy) did not argue for “appropriation of the other party’s policy ideas.” In a 2003 book (perhaps his last major utterance before leaping into permanent conservative punditry), Morris said:

The essence of triangulation is to use your party’s solutions to solve the other party’s problems. Use your tools to fix their car.

That’s not a bad description of what the Clinton administration tried to do between 1992 and 1994 on welfare reform, developing a proposal focused on creating strong incentives for recipients to move from public assistance to work without “hard” time limits or block grants. After 1994, of course, the administration was in no position to dictate the shape of welfare reform, and instead embarked on the long carrot-and-stick process that led to two presidential vetoes and then finally, after agonized deliberations, to the 1996 signature. You can argue that was a bad decision and/or that the compromise went too far, but it’s just not true the whole idea was to adopt conservative positions.

What the Clintonians argued at the time, and I will go to my grave believing they were right, is that it’s both politically and even morally wrong to look at public concerns and divide them into “Democratic issues” and “Republican issues.” The “solutions” can and usually are very, very different, but for the most part if big majorities of the American people are worried about something, you don’t just dismiss it or change the subject to “your” issues. Yet that’s pretty much how Democrats behaved before Clinton took office. And behaving that way again is certainly an option for the future.

Believing that (a) progressives ought to have their own policy solutions for all sorts of problems, and (b) the configuration of partisan forces at any given moment can change exactly how these solutions are deployed and whether they should be bargained over is consistent at the most basic level with what the Clintons did in office and what HRC seems to be doing today. If so, then the planted axiom in Beutler’s essay–that Hillary Clinton is repudiating her past and dealing with a rebuttable presumption that she’s eager to triangulate–is off-base.

The legend of triangulation is so powerful that it’s certainly understandable Beutler would try to confront it on HRC’s behalf–to triangulate against triangulation, in effect. But those who sympathize with her should probably more actively consider the possibility that she’s doing what she believes in the best way she knows how.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.