Biden's reverse triangulation

Like Barack Obama before him, the new president intends to reverse the Clintonian dynamic

President Biden.
(Image credit: Illustrated | Getty Images, iStock)

In 1996, Bill Clinton famously pronounced the death of “big government,” by which he meant the phantom of a totalizing post-New Deal state that existed largely in the minds of millions of right-wing voters. It was a deeply disingenuous speech, every bit as grotesque as his championing of the crime bill in 1994, his support for so-called “welfare reform,” and his insistence upon attending the execution of Ricky Ray Rector.

But all of these things were also part of a successful political strategy. “Triangulation,” as it was termed by Dick Morris, has been the policy pursued by mainstream Democratic politicians ever since, an attempt to outflank the GOP while forcing liberals to settle because there is no meaningful left-wing alternative. Triangulation is in a sense the opposite of Disraeli's dictum (famously adopted by Nixon) that conservative politicians would save the world, or at least win a large number of elections, by pursuing progressive reforms. Both of these gambits speak to the electoral imperative of attempting to hold on to one's own natural constituency while earning at least limited support outside of it.

It is interesting to consider how triangulation has evolved in the last two decades. If his first week in office is any indication, Joe Biden, like Barack Obama before him, intends to reverse the Clintonian dynamic, securing progressive support by taking the right position in the culture wars while holding fast to the center-right consensus on economics and foreign policy.

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As far as I can tell, it is likely to work. Just as Republicans were secretly pleased to find the unpopular repeal of the Affordable Care act voted down in 2017, Democrats will be only too happy to blame the GOP instead of themselves or their party's sitting president when no public option for health care emerges from a divided Senate, when Donald Trump's tax cuts remain in place, when there is no Green New Deal and no ban on fracking, when (as Biden announced on Monday) coronavirus relief bills are means tested in keeping with center-right priorities in both parties.

In the meantime, has Biden not declared that biological men have a human right to participate in women's sports? Has he not announced a nationwide “recommendation” in favor of masking, one that rather conveniently mandates nothing, imposes no penalties, and does not impinge upon the prerogatives of the states, rendering it immune from legal challenge? Has he not restored federal funding for abortions, both at home and abroad, shoring up the revenue of Planned Parenthood for the foreseeable future with the stroke of a pen? Has he not symbolically rejoined a mostly symbolic climate treaty? Has he not already announced that he is reversing the immigration policy that Trump himself had reversed? These are the things that progressives, including sincere ones like Sen. Bernie Sanders who should know better, are already telling themselves.

In the years to come these examples will be multiplied endlessly. But even in four years they will be less important to Biden's strategy of reverse triangulation than the brute fact of his not being Trump. Just as Obama's supposed concessions — not closing Guantanamo Bay, much less doing so immediately upon taking office, or ending the war in Iraq, as he had vowed to do repeatedly during his first presidential campaign; passing the Heritage Foundation's health-care bill when he had Democratic majorities in both chambers of the legislature; doing nothing about the last hated round of GOP tax cuts — were ignored because he was not George W. Bush, so too will Biden's predictable centrism be excused. As we are assured every night by alleged comedians on late-night television programs, simply by virtue of not being his opponent Biden has already restored decency and sanity to the Oval Office.

I can think of no solution to the problem of reverse triangulation. This is because so far from being a “problem,” it is a rational calculation about the relative importance that Democratic voters who are not already effectively captured members of the party's base assign to various issues. Biden ultimately owes his election to affluent suburban voters who do not have radical views on economic or environmental or, indeed, any questions. Why should he be any different?

Editor's note: A previous version of this article misnamed the coiner of triangulation. It has been corrected. We regret the error.

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