The Death of Triangulation

By Eli Pariser
Thursday, August 10, 2006

Ned Lamont's victory Tuesday night in Connecticut's U.S. Senate primary is great news for Democrats. And it's a watershed moment for the growing majority of Americans, in red states and blue, who want change.

For months, polls have warned that across the political spectrum people are fed up -- with the no-end-in-sight occupation of Iraq; with an energy policy that caters to oil giants while gasoline prices soar; with a health-care system that leaves more behind with every passing day. Lamont's victory is evidence that a long-awaited wave of voter sentiment on those issues has materialized.

It's certainly understandable that Republicans would prefer to see Democrats continue to run the temporizing candidates whom they've had little trouble trouncing for the past decade. But you'd think Democratic strategists would be jumping for joy -- after all, they should be able to ride the anti-incumbent feeling to victory in November. Instead, we hear the perennial pundit nattering about moving the party too far to the left. And Marshall Wittmann of the Democratic Leadership Council -- who stubbornly refuses to address the real civil war in Iraq -- invokes the specter of a domestic civil war within the party.

That's because while Lamont's victory is a promising development, it marks the beginning of the end for an old favorite of Washington insiders -- the tactics of triangulation. Originally employed as a survival strategy by a Democratic president in the wake of 1994's Republican revolution, the policy of seizing the political middle ground no longer makes sense in an era when any attempt at bipartisanship is understood as a sign of Democratic weakness and exploited accordingly.

Had triangulation worked, we'd be in a different moment. But for six long years, it hasn't. Even Sen. Hillary Clinton has seen the writing on the wall in recent weeks, criticizing the Bush team's Iraq fiasco by publicly confronting Donald Rumsfeld, calling on him to resign and demanding that troop withdrawals from Iraq begin soon.

With triangulation passing, a new era of bolder, principle-driven politics can begin. Lamont's success should be the opening salvo in a 90-day campaign to establish the clear-cut differences between Democrats and Republicans. Most independent voters, like Democrats, want change, but many of them aren't sure yet whether Democratic candidates are capable of giving it to them. Now's the chance to seize that mantle.

And after all, if not now, when? The radically conservative agenda of the Republican Party has proved a disaster, foundering on monumental failures in the Middle East and New Orleans. Its leader has lost, probably forever, his credibility with the American people because he repeatedly deceived them about Iraq. He is as unpopular as American presidents ever get.

Ned Lamont recognized the significance of this moment and stepped into the breach. He understood that the old order was ready to topple, and he had the gumption and resources to seize the opportunity. He understood that the president's kiss is poison -- not only for Democratic incumbents who gave him cover but for the rubber-stamp Republican Congress as well.

If the Democratic Party can emulate Lamont's principled progressivism, a durable national electoral majority and a government that embraces real people's concerns awaits. Americans want change as badly as they did in 1994. They want an end to the U.S. military occupation of Iraq. They want a shift in national priorities that makes government their ally in dealing with soaring energy prices and increasingly inadequate and unaffordable health insurance. And, yes, they want their officeholders and candidates to hold the president accountable for his failures.

The time has passed for what a New York Times editorial aptly characterized as Sen. Joseph Lieberman's "warped version of bipartisanship, in which the never-ending war on terror becomes an excuse for silence and inaction." People don't want Democratic politicians whose grotesquely nuanced positions on issues make their utterances incomprehensible or meaningless or both. They want a new direction.

The pendulum is swinging, driven by the all-too-apparent shortcomings of the Bush administration. To paraphrase a great Democrat, the only thing Democratic leaders have to fear is timidity in the face of opportunity.

The writer is executive director of the MoveOn Political Action Committee.

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