As you may have heard, Barack Obama continued his recent pattern of coded criticisms of Hillary Clinton by denouncing “triangulation and poll-driven politics,” which is being generally interpreted (not least by HRC’s camp) as an attack on her husband’s political tactics and alleged infidelity to progressive principles.
John Edwards has also attacked “triangulation” as part of a broader, yet still heavily-coded, criticism of the Clintons as representing an unprincipled Washington Establishment.
So with HRC’s top rivals both definining themselves in opposition to “triangulation,” it might be a good time to ask: what, exactly, does “triangulation” mean?
Outside politics, “triangulation” is used in geometry, electronics, and gunnery as a general term for locating an object through reference to two fixed points.
In politics, “triangulation” is identified with the 1990s-era international Third Way movement generally, and with Bill Clinton specifically. And it’s pretty much agreed that the term was invented by Clinton advisor Dick Morris to describe the approach used by the Clinton-Gore campaign in its successful 1996 re-election campaign. Indeed, beyond Morris, no one associated with either Clinton has ever, so far as I am aware, used the term; it’s become entirely pejorative.
But what does it mean?
The AP story on Obama’s speech offered this definition: “His reference to triangulation, however, refers to Bill Clinton’s eight years as president when some advisers urged him to make policy decisions by splitting the difference on opposing views.”
Aside from the questionable suggestion that “triangulation” preceded and succeeded Dick Morris’ brief tenure as a Clinton strategist, I’m reasonably sure that anyone connected with Bill Clinton would angrily reject the idea that “splitting the differences” between the two parties was the essence of Clintonism. But the same argument has raged with respect to the related concept of “The Third Way,” which critics from both the Left and Rightviewed as an effort to appropriate conservative policy ideas and political messages, but whose advocates always maintained was an effort to refresh the Left with new policy ideas while refusing to concede whole issue-areas to the Right.
Going to the source himself, Dick Morris did an entire chapter on triangulation in his 2003 book, Power Plays. Here’s how he defined the term he made famous, as explained in a review of the book that I wrote at the time:
“The essence of triangulation is to use your party’s solutions to solve the other side’s problems. Use your tools to fix their car.” Clinton, Morris shows, adopted the longstanding conservative goal of welfare reform as a top item on the Democratic agenda, but developed progressive policies, including higher funding for child care and stronger financial support for working families, to pursue that goal.
So according to Morris himself, triangulation isn’t about compromising on principles or policies, but about preempting conservative wedge issues by addressing them through progressive policies.
It’s no accident that Morris uses welfare reform as an example of triangulation. And so would many Democrats who prefer the pejorative definition of triangulation. Clinton’s 1996 decision to sign welfare reform legislation that a majority of House Democrats had voted against was at the time interpreted by some as a surrender to Republican principles and priorities, and by others as a redemption of his 1992 promise to “end welfare as we know it,” after a reshaping of the legislation (he vetoed two previous versions) to reflect much of his own approach to the issue. The real argument isn’t about Clinton’s subjective intentions, but about whether you think accepting a time limit for public assistance represented an unacceptable betrayal of progressive values, as some of Clinton’s own friends and advisors said at the time (though many have since recanted given the success of the initiative, and Clinton’s efforts after 1996 to eliminate some of the original bill’s restrictive provisions).
Another example of Clintonian “triangulation” you often hear of was his famous statement in the 1996 State of the Union Address that “the era of big government is over,” which a lot of conservatives treated as an ideological victory. But was it? Is “big government” essential to progressive governance? Or was Clinton’s argument that smaller but more efficient government was actually progressive defensible?
And a third example often cited was his advocacy for trade expansion, and particularly NAFTA (another issue where he was opposed by a majority of House Democrats, and by the labor movement). But whether NAFTA was right or wrong (and if anything, Democratic unhappiness with the agreement has increased since 1994), it’s hard to describe Clinton’s position as a “triangulating” surrender to the Right, since he was continuing a pro-trade Democratic tradition that dated back to Martin Van Buren, and included virtually every progressive luminary of the past.
What I’m driving at here is that differences of opinion about “triangulation”–its definition and its propriety–often come down to differences of principle, not differences between principled and unprincipled people. All of Clinton’s supporters and critics would agree that the conditions under which he governed–facing, for six of his eight years as president, a ruthless congressional Republican majority that eventually sought to remove him from office—excused some tactical flexibility. But is that all he represented?
In the end, maybe it no longer matters. Even if Obama and Edwards are attacking a disputable definition of triangulation that may not be historically accurate, I think we’d all agree that we don’t want a Democratic nominee for president who is unprincipled and entirely poll-driven. That’s why I agree with those who encourage HRC’s critics to get more specific, drop the code words, and take on her actual policies as evidence of her actual philosophy. And that’s particularly true of a candidate who has previously defined himself as representing a new generation of progressives who want to get over the tired arguments of the 1990s.