The term "triangulation" in politics means a set of leaders trying joining with their opponents to pass measures that run counter to those leaders' own supporters. Typically, triangulation is practiced by presidents against their own parties in Congress, with the master of triangulation being President Bill Clinton who, among other things, rammed welfare reform and NAFTA "over the dead bodies" of rank-and-file Democratic lawmakers and the progressive movement. Can congressional leaders can pull the same move? Unfortunately, we're going to find out very soon, as congressional Democratic leaders are very clearly attempting to triangulate against their own party on the three issues the party ran on to win Election 2006.
TRADE - TRIANGULATING WITH A SECRET DEAL IN PURSUIT OF WALL STREET CASH
On trade, Public Citizen has shown that the Democratic Party relied on candidates who ran against lobbyist-written trade deals in order to win many of the crucial conservative-leaning districts that were necessary to win the congressional majority. Yet, as we've seen over the last week, a handful of senior Democratic leaders are joining with the Bush White House in an attempt to ram an ultra-secret free trade deal through Congress, acknowledging that in order to be successful, they will rely on all Republicans and just 25 percent of Democratic lawmakers. As rank-and-file Democratic lawmakers and organizations representing millions of workers, farmers and small businesses have raised objections to the deal, Reuters reports today that Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charlie Rangel (D-NY) is digging in, saying that if he knew what he knew now about how serious rank-and-file Democratic opposition to lobbyist-written trade policy was, he would have tried to negotiate the deal in even more secrecy than it was negotiated in in the first place.
On Bill Moyers' terrific PBS report on Friday about the secret deal, author John R. MacArthur says the motivations for the triangulation on trade are obvious. "This is like the NAFTA campaign of the '90s, an attempt by the Democratic leadership - in those days it was the Clintons - to raise money from Wall Street." You can watch Bill Moyers' entire piece on the secret deal here.
This drive to triangulate on trade has now reached a point where the handful of Democrats who made the deal are publicly attacking those rank-and-file Democratic lawmakers, labor, environmental, health, human rights, religious, consumer protection and agricultural groups raising questions about the deal. On Friday, Reuters reported that Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charlie Rangel (D-NY) "offered no apology" for negotiating the deal in secret or for continuing to conceal the legislative text of the deal. Instead, he went on the attack, saying the only thing he would do differently would be to "ignore a lot of people that really were just wasting my time." He claimed innocently that "I cannot see how anybody would be upset" by the deal, even though as Public Citizen shows today, the list of reforms to current trade policies that fair trade groups forwarded to Democratic leaders many months ago was almost entirely brushed aside by Rangel, as were proposals for a whole new framework for global trade deals.
TRIANGULATION STRATEGY: The dynamics set up a situation whereby the Democratic congressional leadership and less than half of all Democratic lawmakers (as during NAFTA) join with all Republicans to ram a free trade package through Congress over the objections of the progressive movement and rank-and-file Democrats who ran against lobbyist-written trade policies in 2006.
LOBBYING - TRIANGULATING TO PERPETUATE THE CULTURE OF CORRUPTION
Most observers agree that outrage at the Republican's corruption scandals and Democrats promise to clean up the "culture of corruption" helped Democrats win in 2006. Yet, late last week, The Politico reported that Democrats on the House Judiciary committee yesterday "scrapped a beefed-up provision of the Lobbying Reform Bill that would have prohibited former lawmakers and senior staff from lobbying their former colleagues during their first two years out of office." The original bill would have extended the revolving door ban from one to two years, but the amendment eliminating that provision passed by a unanimous voice vote. AP reports that "several days of backroom deal-making where some of the toughest proposed reforms were left on the cutting-room floor." The shenanigans come just as freshman Democrats announced their demands for a much stronger anti-corruption bill.
TRIANGULATION STRATEGY: The dynamics set up a situation whereby the Democratic congressional leadership would join with all Republicans to ram a sham lobbying "reform" bill through Congress potentially over the objections of many of rank-and-file Democrats and the progressive movement.
IRAQ - POTENTIAL TRIANGULATION TO KEEP THE WAR GOING
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Finally, Iraq - the big issue that helped Democrats win in 2006. The Associated Press reports that congressional Democratic leaders may be backing away from using their power to oppose the war, floating the possibility of an Iraq War supplemental bill that "would allow the president to waive compliance with a deadline for troop withdrawals." The New York Times says that the "likelihood that any final agreement will specify no withdrawal date for American troops from Iraq raised the possibility that antiwar Democrats will not support it, particularly in the House, and that the measure will need substantial Republican support to pass."
TRIANGULATION STRATEGY: The dynamics set up a situation whereby the Democratic congressional leadership would join with all Republicans to ram a blank check Iraq spending bill through Congress potentially over the objections of many of rank-and-file Democrats and the progressive movement.
Where is the motivation for triangulation coming from? As MacArthur says, at least some of it comes from money - especially the issues like trade and corruption that deal directly with Wall Street's power over the Democratic Party. But I'd also say it comes from the psychology of those who the Democratic Party elders in Washington have grown used to listening to. Remember, Washington is a place dominated by David Broderism - that is, the religion that says bipartisanship for bipartisanship's sake should be the ultimate goal of politics, regardless of the policies being pushed in bipartisanship's name. The Democratic Party - far more than the Republican Party - often seems to play to the opinions of the David Broder, rather than the opinions of the vast majority of the American people.
That has more than a little something to do with the kinds of people who have dominated the Democratic Party: Washington insiders, many of whom are former Clinton officials. Many of these people really do believe that making David Broder happy is more important than making America happy, and thus that making any deal, even a bad one, is better than fighting for things.
We see this with, for instance, Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-IL) - the Clinton aide who helped triangulate the White House against congressional Democrats to ram NAFTA "over the dead bodies" of the progressive movement, as American Express's CEO bragged at the time. He is running around bragging about working to pass the secret trade deal over the objections of 75 percent of congressional Democrats, and he has been using his position as chairman of the House Democratic Caucus to try to prevent an open debate on the still-secret deal.
Then there is Leon Panetta, a former chief of staff to Clinton. He is quoted in the New York Times vomiting up a rancid bucket of Broderism:
"Leon E. Panetta, a former chief of staff to President Bill Clinton, said he had been concerned, once the Democrats took control of Congress, that "an awful lot of blood in the water" would prevent the parties from coming to terms on 'low-hanging fruit' like immigration and trade. In Mr. Panetta's view, the talks [over trade and immigration] are a good sign. 'Whether it can go into bigger areas like the war remains to be seen,' he said. 'But it clearly helps build at least a rapport that you absolutely need if you're going to try to come to a deal.'"
As you can see, Panetta doesn't care about what's being talked about, or the substance of whatever deals are made on issues - all he seems to care about is making a deal. This same kind of attitude is spewed by the Beltway press, as evidenced by its trumpeting of the secret trade deal without ever having seen the actual legislative language of the deal. It is a psychology that prioritizes any deal on any issue - even one that sells out the Democratic Party's agenda and the interests of the vast majority of the American people - is good.
Thus, we get Democratic leaders who just months after election to the majority are attempting to triangulate against their own party and the progressive movement. That this strategy helped destroy the progressive agenda, the Democratic Party, and Democrats' electoral prospects for the better part of a decade seems of no concern to the people trying to perform these acrobatics - all they seem to be focused on is bringing a smile to David Broder's face and a truckload of Wall Street cash to their campaign coffers. Whether their triangulation defies political history and brings them electoral success in 2008 is less important than what the actual real-world consequences of such behavior is for the country - and if the current trend continues, those consequences could be severe.
© 2007 David Sirota