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Posted by on Aug 19, 2009 in At TMV | 6 comments

Is Obama Playing The Triangle ?

I don’t know whether President Obama has any musical talent or if he plays any particular instrument. But his actions over the past few weeks have made me start to wonder if he’s taking a page from the Clinton playbook. After his landslide defeat in the 1994 elections President Clinton adopted the the now famous triangulation strategy in which he pitted himself against Congressional Republicans on one side and Congressional Democrats on the other.

The triangle game is, for me, most interesting in the fact that it often takes fringe elements and promotes them to the poster boy for each side while ignoring the many reasonable people on both sides who want to accomplish something. At the same time, this posturing is (oddly enough) often just what is needed to neutralize those fringe elements and allow the people in the middle to work things out.

For example during the Clinton years. Many people on both sides of the welfare reform (and other) debates were quite reasonable but it was the ideologues who got the press time and it was Clinton who cleverly used those perceptions to moderate his own image, even if he personally might have sided more with his own party than not.

This strategy came to mind as we saw little hints coming out in the press that the Obama administration was considering dropping the public option on the health care reform plan. This brought immediate howls of protest from the hard left of the party which echoed similar (if ideologically reversed) protests from the hard right of the GOP over alleged ‘death panels’ and other such nonsense.

In the sphere of media hyperbole, this interestingly (and perhaps deliberately) places Obama at the middle, between the ‘make everyone use the government plan’ hard left and the ‘no reform at all’ of the hard right. Of course I think it’s fair to say that we have plenty of reasonable people on both sides of the debate, just as it was in the 1990’s.

Now the Obama White House is trying to play with the triangle trade, but they play the game at their own risk. The system works fine as long as you (as the President) are more or less in the centrist mold, or at least willing to sublimate your own ideology for success in a ‘half a loaf’ sort of world view.

This worked for Clinton (I am not going to speculate as to which of the above camps he falls in to) but I am not sure it will work as well for Obama. He strikes me as having a much deeper ideological core than Clinton and he while he did come up in the world of Chicago compromise politics, the compromise was not with Republicans or the right but with fellow Democrats.

Looking to Obama I think it’s pretty clear that at minimum he wants a public option system, if not a full blown single payer (I know what he has said, but we all know politics is the art of doublespeak). During the Clinton years I do not recall as much back and forth on the White House position, and the comments by Gibbs and others may be a sign that Obama is not entirely comfortable with the compromise concept.

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  • Rambie

    Seems like Obama was conned by some Republican Senators who were just pretending to want to work in a bipartisan way.

  • pacatrue

    Interesting article, Patrick. I just wanted to add (because one can always nitpick) that advocating for a “public option” is not the same as claiming the government will set up death panels. I don’t read many political blogs, so the tone may have been similar between the two issues. But the actual idea of a public option is a fine policy program with benefits and drawbacks, while death panels are simply made-up fear-mongering.

    Edited to add that protesters getting apoplectic about deficits would be similar to going bananas over the lack of a public option. Those are both legit concerns that people can have passionate feelings about.

  • shannonlee

    I thought the triangle was out of Phil Jackson’s playbook?

  • joep

    Triangulation doesn’t apply here. In 1994 Clinton was dealing with a Republican controlled House. He had to go to the middle for any kind of legislation. Obama can lose 30 Democrats in the House and 8 in the Senate and he still gets what he wants (yes reconciliation is on the table).

    I think what you will see is pure power politics. Continue to show bi-partisanship until 9/14 at midnight. Grassley either delivers a compromise that the Republican leadership will not explicitly fight or the Obama solution gets shoved down their throats through reconciliation.

    End of story.

  • DLS

    With this health care effort, but earlier with the Lysenkoist climate stuff (which concerned the public at that time), Obama surfaced as a lib Dem like the lib Dems in Congress who really need muzzling, as Obama did regarding the Bush-Cheney investigation nut cases (though now he may be relenting on this, too).

    This is not triangulation. These days it’s the Dems running rampant (and perhaps trying to do all they can get away with until suffient numbers of them have to retreat in order to get re-elected). “Bi-partisanship” for these Dems has always been “do it our way, or else” and they’re ready with the health care effort (as if they were pathetic chest-thumping dictators in small, remote nations) to push bad legislation by the GOP through unethical means in Congress, as if they have a pathological need to save face over their mess.

    All I will say about Clinton that’s tangential but appropriate (because it involves him) is that when Clinton (the one we all are paying attention to currently) visited Obama for a North Korea-related visit, no doubt, I wouldn’t be surprised if strategy and tactics over health care and perhaps future efforts (immigration, etc.) were discussed and Clinton’s advice received, even sought.

  • DLS

    “Triangulation doesn’t apply here. In 1994 […]”

    And despite what a very few have speculated, I believe there won’t be another 1994 in next year’s elections, despite how badly the Democrats have been misbehaving. The GOP was rejected by so much of the public in 2006 and 2008 because they’ve misbehaved in ways similar to the Dems, in large part; they currently are sidelined in large part because of their own failures, including failure to reform to a point where the public welcomes them as a refreshing alternative, which was the case and more in 1994.

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