The dog ate my sermons!

A mostly political Weblog.
Dec. 11 2007 5:09 AM

The Dog Ate My Sermons!

What did Huckabee preach?

(Continued from Page 20)

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Triangulation vs. Bridge Building: On bloggingheads, Bob Wright argues there is no contradiction between 1) Obama's claim to be truer, bluer Democrat and 2) his claim to be a bipartisan bridge-builder. I grant that if you see policies on a spectrum, a politician can say he believes in a 'pure' liberal position but promise that he'll compromise as much as necessary to pass legislation. I'm forced to distinguish between this kind of bridge-building and "triangulation"--a distinction self-proclaimed bridge-builder Obama makes too, since he attacks "triangulating."

What's the difference? A Triangulator defines himself or herself against the positions of left and right. Most obvious example: welfare reform. Clinton argued traditional Congressional Democrats were wrong not to demand that welfare recipients work. But he distanced himself from Republicans who weren't willing to spend the money to provide the work and to "make work pay." He wasn't building bridges so much as telling each side off.

Why is this useful? The Triangulator knows that bipartisan solutions don't always require each side to give up its least important demands and meet in the middle, half-a-loaf style. Bipartisan solutions sometimes require one side or the other to give up it's most important demand. There was nothing the left cared more about in the welfare debate, for example, than preventing states from being able to abolish welfare or rigorously require single mothers to work. In the bipartisan reform that ultimately passed in 1996, the left lost those demands.

Similarly, in the education debate, traditional due process protection against dismissal isn't a marginal demand for the Dem-supporting teacher's unions. It's their core demand--not the last 10%, but the first 10%. But arguably you aren't going to fix the schools unless you take away that 10% and make it easier to fire mediocre teachers (or close down whole schools if they fail to meet standards). Similarly, in the health care debate there is nothing small-government conservatives want to avoid more than a big government-controlled system. Arguably we aren't going to get universal health care unless the conservatives lose that fight. Not compromise. Lose.


On issues thave have this structure, you're not necessarily going to achieve a bipartisan solution by starting out on one side or the other--as a "pure" Dem or a "pure" Republican--and then compromising, because you're not going to be well-positioned to make your side give up the core demand that it has to give up. You're not going to start out as a flat-out supporter of teacher tenure (and opponent of NCLB-style accountability) and then "compromise" by abandoning teacher tenure. You won't have laid the basis for it, and it's not a "meet in the middle" solution. But if you start out by criticizing the teachers' union for dogmatically supporting tenure and criticizing the Republicans for stinting on funding, you have a shot.

There are issues that don't have this structure--where getting to a solution doesn't require denying a core demand of left or right. Some problems are loaf-splitting problems--funding for the arts, maybe, or roads. They're easy to solve. But I'd argue that precisely because they're easy to solve most of them have been solved already. The problems we're left with are problems where one side or the other is willing to fight to the death to protect a core demand that must be denied to acheive a solution.

Often that core demand will only be on the right--health care may well be one such problem. In that case, taking a "pure" liberal position won't hurt. But on most problems there's a core demand on the left as well as the right standing in the way: not just teacher tenure on education, but also race preferences on civil rights, opposition to means-testing on Social Security and Medicare. On those issues, Triangulators are more likely to succeed than either purists or bridge-building compromisers--or people like Obama who claim to be both. ...

Update: Brownstein  touts Obama's bridge-building, and lets him get away with arguing [in Brownstein's words] that "the Clintonian version of consensus focuses too much on finding a poll-driven midpoint between the parties." That's not a fair characterization of either Clinton's welfare plan or his health care ("managed competition") plan.  Both were distinct third-way approaches. ...4:30 P.M. link


Out of 177 recipients of Bill Clinton's last-minute pardons, Jake Tapper could find only 3 who've contributed to Hillary's campaign? Ingrates! Or else people smart enough to know that a $2,3000 maximum contribution isn't worth the bad publicity stories like this bring. . ... P.S.: Hillary campaign manager Howard Wolfson still manages to come off as a prick. ...[via Lucianne11:34 A.M.