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Clancy: The dirtiest word in politics


Is President Biden deploying a triangulation strategy?

And if he is, will this strategy work to lift his 38% approval rating as our economy reels from inflation, bank closures, and the looming debt limit showdown in Congress?

These are the questions on observers’ minds now that the president has made several decisions that met with approval on the right and angered his progressive base. Within the last ten days, the president has given the green light to a massive oil drilling project in Alaska, signed into law a resolution to block a controversial Washington, D.C., crime bill that opponents have criticized as weak on crime, and is poised to revive policies that President Trump previously used to secure the border.

These executive branch moves to push off the left and toward the center are reminiscent of the ones President Bill Clinton made to counter Newt Gingrich’s Contract with America in the mid 1990s. After declaring in his 1996 State of the Union address that “the era of big government is over,” and pursuing a balanced budget, Clinton’s approval rating jumped from 54% to 58%. His pivot is arguably what won him a decisive victory over Bob Dole, becoming the first Democrat to win two consecutive presidential elections since FDR.

But we are in a different time, and Clinton may have been an outlier. Other presidents who have tried pivots to the center have seen diminishing returns. In Judy Woodruff’s new series, America at a Crossroads, Carroll Doherty from Pew says we are in “a moment where the divisions are deeper than ever and the intensity of dislike for the other side is probably deeper than ever as well.”

You can’t blame President Biden for hoping to reprise President Clinton’s success at triangulation, but don’t expect his political advisors to acknowledge they are trying.  When President Obama agreed to an extension of President George W. Bush’s tax cuts, even for the wealthiest Americans, his aides strongly denied that Obama was a triangulator, prompting John Harris and Ben Smith of POLITICO to coin triangulation as “The Dirtiest Word in Politics.”  “Triangulation is about posturing and positioning; it’s not about principle,” Paul Begala said in 2010, calling the strategy “a disgrace.”

We hope a president’s efforts to find broad consensus among our citizens will no longer be characterized as unprincipled, dirty, or disgraceful, but the larger question is if a triangulation strategy is even possible for one of the two major party candidates given our increasingly stark ideological divides over political views?

Ryan Clancy is chief strategist at No Labels.