Triangulation: What Is It? Does It Even Exist?

Several smart center-left commentators argue that President Obama is not triangulating. At least one argues there's no such thing.

Mori Dinauer quips, “Isn’t ‘Triangulation’ Just Another Way of Saying ‘Makes Political Deals?’”   Jonathan Bernstein nods his head and adds that, “Triangulation is an advertising slogan coined by Dick Morris to advertise himself — to give him as large a share of the credit for Bill Clinton’s 1996 re-election as possible.  That’s all.  Trying to find any deeper meaning in it is like trying to find the deeper meaning in ‘Coke Adds Life’ or ‘Tiger in Your Tank.'”

Now, while I agree with pretty much every word of the rest of the post — which explains the nature of achieving political compromise, how it varies based on changing situations, and why political strategists get far too much credit — I disagree on this particular point.  (Also: Jonathan may want to watch some ads from this century to avoid dating himself.)

Yes, Morris is a self-promoting jackass whose actual political advice is usually wrong.  But “triangulation” is actually a real thing:  It’s when a president presents himself as the sane middle ground between the opposition party and his own base.  Bill Clinton’s “welfare reform” package was a classic case, in that he picked an issue that Republicans had been hammering Democrats on for years, claimed it as his own, and stiffed his own party’s congressional delegation in so doing. Triangulation, in other words, isn’t about the process of negotiating bills at all but rather how a president leverages the process for his own political gain.

Typically, presidents are forced to compromise with the opposition party because he either needs their votes (they hold the majority in one or more Houses of Congress or, at very least, have the ability to filibuster in the Senate).  He takes a bill that was much less than his ideal or gets pretty much what he wanted but also has to swallow a poison pill — adding on something that he personally hates but is small potatoes compared to the bill he’s trying to get done.  It’s pretty much what Obama did with health care reform.

On this tax compromise, he basically sold out on the key principle he’d been advocating since his campaign — that taxes had to be raised on those earning over $250k a year — in order to get through some other things he ultimately thought more important.   No triangulation there — that’s just the legislative reality he had to deal with.

Where the triangulation came in was in his press conference, wherein he denounced his own party’s congressional leadership as “sanctimonious” and “purist.”   Also — and this is obviously pure conjecture on my part — I firmly believe that he was happy to cave in on this issue and therefore not have to fight the “he raised taxes during a recession” charge during his re-election campaign.   And likely also delivered a mild short-term stimulus — or, at least, taken away the charge that things would have gotten better if only he hadn’t raised taxes.   In other words, he’s put his fellow Democrats in a very tough spot but enhanced his own re-election prospects.

Now, Greg Sargent makes a reasonable argument that Obama’s deal is different from Clinton’s.

Obama’s dispute with the left isn’t an effort to position himself ideologically as a centrist. It’s part of a broader effort to present himself as Washington’s lone resident adult in a room full of bickering children on both sides — the last line of defense for the American people against Washington business-as-usual.


The reason Obama’s attacks on the left smack of triangulation is that he persists on painting the left and the right with the same brush: He presents himself as the last reasonable man trapped between two sides blinded to reason by ideology. Hence his insistence yesterday that he won’t be held to any unreasonable “ideal.” But as irksom as this is, it isn’t really the same as positioning oneself ideologically by arguing that the left is wrong on policy substance, as Bill Clinton did.

While this distinction is indeed worth noting, it doesn’t change the substance of the matter:  Both Clinton and Obama intentionally use their own party’s base as a foil for political advantage.

Sargent’s related point is better:

Obama’s argument with the left, at bottom, is more a dispute over what’s achievable, and less an argument over what is desirable to achieve. Obama opposes extending the high end tax cuts, just as the left does. His disagreement with the left is over whether there’s another way to achieve the goals Obama and the left agree on: Extending the middle class cuts and extending unemployment benefits. The left says a protracted fight would achieve those things. Obama and his advisers say a fight wouldn’t achieve those things, or at least that a fight wouldn’t achieve them in time to stave off a tax hike for the middle class. Hence his willingness to reach a deal.

I do think this is right.  If Obama had 65 votes in the Senate, he’d have done a much more radical version of healthcare reform, repealed Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, and many other things rather than play this triangulation game.   Then again, if Clinton had won big in the 1994 midterms rather than getting trounced, he’d never have brought Dick Morris back into the fold.  In both cases, triangulation is a reaction out of necessity rather than instinct.

FILED UNDER: Politics 101, US Politics
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Zelsdorf Ragshaft III says:

    I don’t see how you can compare Clinton and Obama. Clinton had been a governor and while flawed, understood governance. Obama, not so much.

  2. Steven Donegal says:

    Ragshaft, ask yourself this: in their first two years in office, which president got more of his agenda passed through Congress–Clinton or Obama? Now, which one understood governance?

  3. Dave Schuler says:

    I think that Sargent’s got it pretty much right. The president’s press conference wasn’t an example of triangulation which I would define as making common cause with the opposition party in Congress against your own party—he had as much harsh criticism for Congressional Republicans as for Congressional Democrats.

    It was just deal-making, time-hallowed but a different phenomenon.

  4. Zelsdorf Ragshaft III says:

    Obama had the advantage of having the far far left in control of congress. That is something Clinton did not have. Tom Foley was not nearly as radical as Nancy Pelosi. George Mitchell, the Senate majority leader was far more honorable than Dirty Harry Reid. Clinton’s party held a majority of 57 to 43. Obama had a majority of 60 to 40. That is filibuster proof. Obama’s effectiveness is being demonstrated right now with the tax situation. Democrats waited till the end to do what they should have been doing all along, governing. They have spent time increasing areas of governance. This is all BS and anyone who thinks not should just join the peoples party, if they have not already.

  5. I’m always amused when anyone takes a very complex problem with literally thousands of variables, and picks exactly two of those variables to draw definitive conclusions.

    I feel fortunate that I have OTB comment threads to keep me amused whenever I’m feeling low.

  6. matt says:

    Hhahaha far left.. That’s why they the “far left” kept the public option in when health care reform was passed by congress? Oh wait it was those “far left” leaders that made sure any real reform such as a public option never had a chance.

    Your own stats prove that the democrats aren’t nearly as left wing as you’d like to claim as obviously some of them assisted in filibustering anything resembling real reform. Your inability to see beyond your ideological blinders is just amazing..