Triangulation shapes the Republican 2012 presidential race

Chris Cillizza
Reporter April 17, 2011

Triangulation is back. But this time, it’s the GOP version.

Several times over the past few months, Republicans preparing to run for president in 2012 have staked out positions in opposition not just to President Obama but also to their own party members in Congress.

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House for the newspaper and Web site. View Archive

Late last year, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney balked at the tax-cut compromise struck between congressional Republicans and the president. “It is difficult to understand how our political leaders could have reached such a disappointing agreement,” he wrote in a USA Today op-ed piece announcing his opposition.

Then, late last week, former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty came out against the last-minute budget deal between House Speaker John Boehner and Obama that narrowly averted a federal government shutdown.

“The more we learn about the budget deal, the worse it looks,” Pawlenty said, adding: “America deserves better.”

When it comes to Rep. Paul Ryan’s 2012 budget proposal, a piece of legislation that passed the House on Friday with only four Republican defections, the 2012 presidential field has been politely praiseworthy without offering anything close to a full-throated endorsement of the plan’s specifics.

Political aficionados know that triangulation — the strategy of using one’s own party as a foil — is nothing new.

Bill Clinton, if not the inventor of triangulation then certainly its master craftsman, repeatedly sought a middle ground (or a third way — wink, wink) as president between the policy proposals pushed by Democrats in Congress and those ideas Republicans advocated.

Welfare reform is the shining example of Clinton’s triangulation strategy: In signing a piece of legislation widely opposed by members of his party in Congress, he was able to burnish his centrist credentials — a critical piece of his 1996 political comeback just two years after the Republican revolution.

For Republicans running for president in 2012, the calculation is similar but heavily weighted toward primary voters.

“Congressional Republicans in leadership represent the ‘establishment’ — something the grass roots has grown to distrust and dislike,” said GOP consultant Chris LaCivita, who is not aligned with any current candidates.

LaCivita added that the 2010 Senate Republican primary process revealed the peril of being too closely aligned with the party infrastructure in Washington. GOP candidates running with establishment support lost primaries in Alaska, Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Kentucky and Nevada.

It’s against that political backdrop that the Republican field is positioning itself, explained GOP strategist Todd Harris, who played a role in Marco Rubio’s Senate primary upset last year in the Sunshine State. “One of the best ways to fire up the Republican base right now is to prove you are willing to take on the GOP itself,” he said.

And, with only one House or Senate member — Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.) — making a White House bid, it’s near-certainty that running against Washington will be a major strategic pillar of the race.

Although competing against congressional Republicans may be an appealing idea for 2012 candidates, it has not gone over well in Washington.

Sen. John Thune (S.D.), who ruled out a presidential bid earlier this year, scolded those who would “stand on the sidelines and criticize” the tax deal.

Rep. Tom Cole (Okla.), a longtime party strategist and former chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, was even more emphatic about the efficacy of a triangulation strategy.

“House Republicans are the only group that is actually cutting spending and pushing a bold agenda that restructures entitlement programs in a way that makes them sustainable for the next generation,” he said in an interview with the Fix. “Scoring cheap political points at the expense of GOP House members for personal gain in the presidential primaries is both shortsighted and counterproductive.”

Cole said 2012 hopefuls should “put up or shut up before they second-guess John Boehner, our leadership team or Paul Ryan.”

The simple reality is that congressional Republicans have a different — and more difficult — challenge than presidential candidates.

Congressional GOPers have to find ways to advance their legislative prerogatives with a Democratic-controlled Senate and a Democrat in the White House. Republicans seeking the presidency, on the other hand, are under no such burden and can therefore push for ideological purity — period.

“It may be how Congress works, but candidates will never fire up the base giving speeches that say, ‘Are you ready to compromise?’ ” Harris joked.

Those differing goals ensure future clashes between 2012 candidates and the men and women leading the GOP in Washington. Triangulation is back — big time.

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