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February 21, 2005

Who Triangulates?

Over at The Washington Post, Dan Balz has a slightly alarmist article on the leftward drift that Dean's chairmanship, and the party's new reliance on grassroots donors, might provoke. Standard stuf, to be sure, but he makes an interesting strategic point midway through:

As Dean takes the helm as party chairman, Democrats now face a competition between what might be called the Dean model and the Clinton model, between confrontation and triangulation. This amounts to a contest between a bold reassertion of the party's traditional philosophy that fits the polarized environment of the Bush presidency vs. a less provocative effort to balance core values with centrist ideas that proved successful in the 1990s but has since produced a backlash within the party.

This is a total, and very dangerous, misread. Triangulation is not a strategy for parties to implement, it's a playbook for individual politicians seeking to transcend party status. For them, it's a good idea. The generally acknowledged superstars of the past few years, those with wide support across the electoral divide, have all been triangulators. Clinton, McCain, Giuliani, Arnold. Even Obama's Newsweek cover crowed over his "purpleness". Americans like their politicians to transcend their parties, it makes them larger than life. But parties can't transcend themselves. When they try, and they have, they only succeed in alienating their core voters and losing elections.

Dean shouldn't be trying to lead the party in triangulation. His job, rather, is to make sure the activist base feels confident and connected to the Democratic label, thus freeing our presidential nominees to talk to the whole country. So long as the nation remains closely divided, presidential candidates are going to have to create personas that appeal beyond their party. You can argue about whether that means moderation or hard progressivism, but they're going to have to reach beyond their base. The only way the base can withstand such a quadrennial rejection is to forge strong bonds with the party leadership, who can then reassure them through the presidential election. When that's not done, you get Nader in 2000 and Buchanan in 1992. That's why you don't triangulate the party, you use the party to enable triangulation by the candidates. And that's why Dean's ascension should be cheered by Democrats left, right, and center. A chair trusted by the base, rather than installed as the President's apparatchik, is exactly what's needed.

February 21, 2005 in Strategy | Permalink

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» Democratic "Leadership" Committee from Politics and War
Oliver Willis says:I'm someone who, at heart, agrees with the DLC's policies but finds their spokespeople among the least tactful and lacking the most clues for miles around. They aren't much rhetorically without Bill Clinton.I don't always agree with ... [Read More]

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» Democratic "Leadership" Committee from Politics and War
Oliver Willis says:I'm someone who, at heart, agrees with the DLC's policies but finds their spokespeople among the least tactful and lacking the most clues for miles around. They aren't much rhetorically without Bill Clinton.I don't always agree with ... [Read More]

Tracked on Mar 1, 2005 5:45:24 PM

Comments

I don't think you can be a moderate, or that being a moderate will do any good, given the current tactics employed by the Neo-cons. The Clinotn model worked becuase 1)Bill Clinton is one of the most charismetic humans on planet earth, but more importantly 2) The Republicans had not yet been taken over by bat-shit insane violent religious freaks.

So even if we had another Bill Clinotn waiting in the wings, I don't know that it would do any good.

Posted by: ~DS~ | Feb 21, 2005 3:54:02 PM

I don't know about #2, DS. Remember Jesse Helms?

Posted by: Haggai | Feb 21, 2005 4:13:49 PM

It's a rare pleasure to such read clear reasoning on this issue. A very useful post, definitive on the subject (in my mind at least).

Tom O

Posted by: Tom O | Feb 21, 2005 4:37:04 PM

Excellent

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Feb 21, 2005 5:00:46 PM

You know, all this talk about whether Dean is too liberal or too strident is missing the point, I think.

There are three things I think he can do that no one else could:

1) Effective spokesperson. Off to a good start, particularly concerning the NY GOP leader.

2) Fuse the unofffical groups (blogs, etc...) with official structures for a unified message. Haven't seen that yet.

3) Raising money. We know about the blog campaign -- which to my disappointment hasn't been saturating left-leaning blogs -- but what we don't know is how much he's raising for the party in his travels.

#3, I think, will be a very big deal.

Posted by: Chris Rasmussen | Feb 21, 2005 5:07:25 PM

It is about Howard Dean striving for the Democratic Party to define itself rather than letting the Republicans define us. It is about Dean's desire to be proactive versus reactive. As Ezra loves to point out, it is all about the heuristics, baby.

Posted by: Steve C | Feb 21, 2005 6:11:52 PM


Triangulation was a strategy that was intended to let Clinton position himself between the Gingrich-led Republicans and the congressional Democrats. How exactly would that be a model for the Democratic Party as a whole? Does Balz think congressional Democrats should stand up against themselves?

Balz is a fairly sharp guy, and the book he wrote with Ron Brownstein on the Gingrich ascendancy is a good one. Maybe this is simply a shorthand for moderation that got away from him. Still, 1990s centrism only worked for Clinton because it was, well, in the center. There was a right where Gingrich stood and a left where congressional Democrats stood. If Dean plants the party in the center, then the center becomes the left by default and the GOP gets to shift things another few steps to the right.

Nope. Time to take a stand.

Posted by: Marc | Feb 21, 2005 11:34:27 PM

If Dean plants the party in the center, then the center becomes the left by default and the GOP gets to shift things another few steps to the right.

I continue to be amazed at the utter failure of moderate for the sake of moderation "Democrats" or independents to grasp this very simple point. Jack O'Toole, I'm talking to you.

Posted by: paperwight | Feb 22, 2005 1:02:29 AM

Marc & Paperwight-

If I am understanding your comments correctly, I came away with a different understanding of the original post. As I read it, Dean should emphasize the leftward tendancies of the Democratic party. This will accomplish:

1. Neuter third party appeal from the left (goodby Ralph- don't let the door hit you on the way out).
2. Increase party enthusiasm from strong partisans. More volunteers, more money, more energy.

A leftward tilt amoung party stalwarts covers the candidates flank, leaving the candidate room to appeal to the center without sacrificing their base.

This is exactly what the Republicans have done in the ast few elections. Run as a centrist (compassionate conservative), rule as a wingnut.

An excellent recent example of this approach was Hillary's comments about abortion.

Tom O

Posted by: Tom O | Feb 22, 2005 3:07:58 AM

This is exactly what the Republicans have done in the [l]ast few elections. Run as a centrist (compassionate conservative), rule as a wingnut.

Actually, it's "run as a centrist when you're in the public eye, but lard your speeches with code words and hold private meetings with their leaders so that your wingnut base knows you're really a wingnut too and comes out to vote for you." Bush didn't really run as a centrist in 2000, and absolutely didn't run as one in 2000. He ran as a right-wing demagogue.

And I don't think a Democratic candidate running as a triangulating centrist (where the center keeps moving right) will really fire up the base. If someone were to run as a fighting moderate, they'd have a good shot. The fighting part is really important. Dean's just a moderate who's dug his heels in -- he's not far to the left.

Posted by: paperwight | Feb 22, 2005 9:03:27 AM

Whoops. That second 2000 should be 2004.

Posted by: paperwight | Feb 22, 2005 9:04:28 AM

Paperwight-

Remenber "Uniter, not a Divider"? Remember "Compassionate Conservative"? It seems pretty clear o me that the approach suggest in the original post is in fact exactly how 2000 went, and still had resonance in 2004. George certainly did not run last time on a platform of dismantling Social Security. I think that sometimes we make the mistake of paying too much attention and knowing too much about the issues. This isn't about issues; this is about clearly standing for something as a party, and conveying that clarity with strength and enthusiasm to the larger public that pays only casual attention to politics.

The right has been smart enough to be satisfied with code words and private meetings until they get power. It hasn't seemed to hurt their enthusiasm a bit.

I'm not sure I understand the difference between a "triangulating centrist" and a "fighting moderate", anyway. If what you are saying is that we need candidates who strongly stand for something, I could not agree more.

Tom O

Posted by: Tom O | Feb 22, 2005 10:40:00 AM

Tom O:

I like this point:

2. Increase party enthusiasm from strong partisans. More volunteers, more money, more energy.

I'm sure this point has been made about 300 times elsewhere, but what I don't get, finally, about running/legislating as a 'centrist' is just that: being moderate, being a 'centrist' never excited anyone. We can comfort people, sure. But it wasn't, to cite a few nasty examples, the centrists who won in Germany in the 30s or in Russia in the teens. If we want grassroots action, if we want volunteers who will sell their flesh to win, hell, if we want voters who show up, we need to move, hard, to the left.

Posted by: Karl the Idiot | Feb 22, 2005 11:09:24 AM

Karl, I don't think we lost the last election because the left wasn't fired up, or didn't vote, or didn't contribute heavily at the grassroots level. Not that I'm going all Martin Peretz here or anything--man, I really hate that guy--but the whole left/center thing is a little more complicated than that.

Posted by: Haggai | Feb 22, 2005 12:13:20 PM

You know, I've been saying the same thing for a long time now. The DLC's biggest mistake was in thinking they could "occupy the center". They couldn't, not once they controlled the DNC and the party as a whole.

The Democratic party defines the "left". (At least the non-extremist left). You can't occupy the middle when you, personally, define one end of a line. All you do is allow the other side to drift further into la-la land.

Posted by: Morat | Feb 22, 2005 1:08:55 PM

You lost the last election becuase the BushCo hate machine very effectively played the gay hatred and patriotism card, not much you can really do about that. But also because the campaign run by Kerry/Edwards tried to play it 'safe' instead of going striaght for the exposed the jugular. And when Kerry said shit like "I would still have backed the war even if I knew then what I kow now" and other stuff like that, it was pretty stupid. They did organize well, they did smear well, they did reduce complex issues to soundbites dripping vitriol, and they didn't let accuracy or fair play slow them down. But mostly you lost because BushCo scared the livin shit out of people and still had some residual credibility left with a good chunk of the electorate. If you can't captilaize on things like the Social Security issue or hitting up AARP to make thenm look like soldier hating perverts, you deserve to lose in 2006 also. You need to take the goddamn gloves off and stop fucking around. These guys are slime, they have no values at all, they're not even the same party most Republicans who vote for them think they're voting for. That party is as dead as Reagan. This crew is controlled by fringe religious lunatics, crooks, and incompetent buffoons. But they're real good and campaigning and playing dirty. So you'd better be ready to play dirty right back. Dean was a good start, he's an evangelical who can draw out the hypocrisy of using the gentle teachings of ZChrist, who mandated care for the poor, sick, and underprivileged, and contrast that with what the neo-christian bat-shit crazed violent extremist are passing off as religion. Getting Dean in power is almost enough to make me think you guys have finally got it, and join in with the DNC for life. This last elections was only one of two where I've ever voted for a Dem.

Posted by: ~DS~ | Feb 22, 2005 8:04:09 PM

Look, I don't mean to come off sounding like I have 'the answers'. Hell I'm an atheist, I run an atheist Blog, and I've been fighting with the religous right for years as a defender of evolutionary biology against the onslaught of creationism. What the Dems failed to realize, or captialize on imo, is religion. I know enough core Christian Theology to know that, hands down, the principles of the Democratic Party are ,i>way, way more consistent with core evgangelical values, than the current incarnation of the GOP.
In my neck of the woods, the local Hospice Organization of Brevard County Florida, which handles among other things, indigent victms dying, long, lingering, horrible, deaths, from diseases like cancer and AIDS, is manned almost entirely by evangelical Christians. They take care of these people, keep them company when they're covered with skin sores and reek of rotting flesh, empty their bad pans and vomit pans cheerfully, provide companionship and comfort in the most dire of circumstances, hold their hands as they die, let them into their own homes to pass away in their own bed, take care of their final estate, they even sometimes pay out of their own pocket for the poor to have a decent funeral. All because their faith demands they do so, and to honor the teachings of Christ. They're always overworked, because there are so many poor, older, infirmed people in Florida on the verge of death. They're just real decent folks all the way around. Pretty inspiring people in my opinion, and the kind of people the world could use more of. My guess is, from interacting with thousands of Christians in person and on the Internet, that the majority of Christians are cut from similar cloth. Now whose party does <>that sound like to you? The Neocons thugs, or the Democrats? Do you see what I mean? Don't be afraid of Christianity, be afraid of the Neocons who have hoodwinked a pretty good chunk of the theistic public into backing their agenda by scaring the shit out of them. Start working within the churches and start pointing out in no uncertain terms, there are over 1000 verses in the New Testament by Christ mandating that Christians take care of the poor and the sick; period. There is maybe one fliiping verse concemning homosexuality or abortion. So freaking use that, it worksd in your favor, it is your very Democratic values that Christ did teach.

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