Triangulation and the debt ceiling debate
In an op-ed in the Tuesday’s Des Moines Register, former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty made clear that congressional Republicans should be very wary of cutting a deal with the White House on raising the debt limit.
“We need to balance government budgets by cutting spending and rejecting tax increases,” wrote Pawlenty. “This can be done in both Minnesota and Washington, but only if Republicans draw a line in the sand and stand firm against more spending and taxes.”
Pawlenty is far from the only Republican running for president in 2012 who has come out strongly against a deal that includes any sort of tax increases, staking out conservative territory sure to play well with a party base adamantly opposed to such a move.
That positioning also means that almost no deal signed onto by Republican congressional leaders will be met with approval by the party’s presidential candidates.
It’s a classic bit of political triangulation. In order to prove their own conservative bona fides, 2012 candidates can — and likely will — oppose any deal cut by the party’s congressional leaders. This makes it even harder for congressional Republicans to strike a debt deal, with party leaders from the outside railing against them and riling up the base in advance of the 2012 elections.
“With the possible exception of [Minnesota Rep. Michele] Bachmann, none of the presidential candidates has to vote on anything,” said one senior Republican consultant granted anonymity to speak candidly about strategy. “It gives them the rhetorical freedom to loudly support the goals, quietly disagree on a couple of ‘minor’ provisions, and overall blame Congress and Administration for cutting a bad deal for the country.”
Triangulation — the idea of running against two established positions in an attempt to find a third way — was brought into common parlance during the presidency of Bill Clinton.
Clinton, following the guidance of consultant Dick Morris, challenged traditional Democratic thinking on issues like a balanced budget and welfare reform — angering his party in Congress but effectively co-opting the political center in advance of his 1996 re-election race.
While politicians since then have publicly rejected the idea of triangulation — which really amounts to throwing your party under the proverbial bus for political gain — it remains a powerful strain of strategy within both parties.
And, it’s already reared its head — albeit in a new sort of way — in the 2012 presidential race.
While Clinton used triangulation to push the two parties toward their ideological poles — making it easier for him to reach toward the middle, the Republican presidential candidate are pushing the GOP Congress toward that middle in order to better stake out ground on the ideological right. That, of course, is where the majority of Republican votes in the 2012 primaries are caucuses tend to reside.
In the immediate aftermath of congressional Republicans cutting a tax deal with President Obama at the end of last year, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney penned an op-ed in the USA Today condemning the deal.
“Given the unambiguous message that the American people sent to Washington in November, it is difficult to understand how our political leaders could have reached such a disappointing agreement,” scolded Romney. “The new, more conservative Congress should reach a better solution.”
(Romney’s comments provoked considerable unhappiness among congressional Republicans. “It’s easy to stand on the sidelines and criticize this proposal,” said South Dakota Sen. John Thune in a not-so-veiled critique of Romney. “And it’s perhaps even politically expedient to stand on the sidelines and criticize this proposal.”)
President Obama has tried a bit of triangulation of his own in the debt ceiling debate, throwing out the possibility of cuts to Medicare as part of a “grand bargain” deal — a prospect that had congressional Democrats less-than-thrilled about potentially losing a potent 2012 issue.
And, with the Aug. 2 deadline to raise the debt ceiling rapidly approaching, the likes of Pawlenty and Bachmann seem to be digging in on their opposition to the idea of any sort of serious compromise with the White House.
In her first ad of the 2012 campaign, currently airing in Iowa, Bachmann touts her opposition to any deal. “I will not vote to increase the debt ceiling,” Bachmann pledges in the commercial.
Romney has been quieter on the issue, although he has signed on to a pledge that insists the debt ceiling must not be raised unless such a move is accompanied by major cuts in federal spending and a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution, among other things.
Former Utah governor Jon Huntsman, too, hasn’t spent all that much time talking about a debt deal, although he seemed to express support for the idea of a deal over the weekend.
“I think everybody agrees that it’s a big deal to get serious with the debt ceiling,” Huntsman told the St. Petersburg Times. “And I have every confidence that cooler heads will prevail and by our deadline.”
The reality that congressional Republican leaders have to deal with is that there is almost no political benefit for any of their party’s potential presidential nominees to sign off on any sort of debt ceiling deal that they had absolutely no influence in crafting.
None of them — with the exception of Bachmann who has already said she will oppose any debt ceiling increase — has to vote on a compromise and none of them will be held accountable if a deal isn’t made and the U.S. defaults on its loans.
It’s the difference between campaigning and governing — and why the task for the White House and congressional Republicans is so very difficult.
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