Political Hay

Quadrangulation in 2012?

The 2012 presidential race offers Republicans a rare "fourth way" to the White House.

By 8.29.11

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"Triangulation" elected Clinton and Obama. Will "quadrangulation" propel a Republican in 2012? It will if Republicans are to be successful. Washington presents a three-way power split unseen in a generation. It not only entraps Obama, it opens a perfect opportunity for an outsider Republican to co-opt Democrats' recently successful post-partisan presidential strategy.

"Triangulation" entered our political vocabulary during the Clinton years. In 1994, Republicans had won Congress by offering a stark conservative alternative to long-time, and widely seen liberal, Democratic control. Unclear at the time, the new Republican Congress wound up offering Clinton the perfect foil. It is most likely that his mid-term repudiation and his subsequent change of course saved Clinton's presidency.

What Clinton did was to "one-up" the new Republican Congress that had arrived to change Washington. His sea change charted a political course correction between it and the previous Democratic majority -- he "triangulated." Appearing to always be choosing the middle way, he made himself seem above the partisan fray, or at least less a part of it.

While triangulation is credited as a new tactic, its underlying strategy of attracting the center hardly is. The configuration of America's electorate requires it. As 2010 exit polling showed, the national electorate is very closely split -- 35% Democrats, 35% Republicans, and 29% Independents. The center is America's political fulcrum: neither party can win a presidential race without winning the center.

Obama's re-creation of the Clinton approach in 2008 was exceptionally easy. Washington political power was split between Republican President Bush and a Democratic Congress. Still new to the latter, Obama was still seen as outside it. He had little trouble running between Bush and congressional Democrats -- achieving the highest popular vote percentage of any Democrat candidate since LBJ in 1964.

With America's strategic necessity of winning the center and the Clinton and Obama Democratic success stories in triangulating to do so, there is little doubt Obama would love to repeat it to re-election next year. However, Washington is not cooperating.

Washington is now split into three political power centers: Senate Democrats, House Republicans, and of course, the Democrat President himself. Such a three-way split has not occurred since 1986, when Reagan was in the White House, Republicans ran the Senate, and Democrats controlled the House.

Washington's three-way political split is both the product and producer of exacerbated tensions that continually have spilled over into policy. Congress, methodical by constitutional design in the best of times, is easily gridlocked in this particularly polarizing atmosphere. As such, virtually any, and every, issue is now a battle.

As hard as it is on governing, it is no easier on Obama's re-election. Washington's three-way power split seriously threatens Obama's chance to reprise his triangulation campaign of 2008. He is now drawn into the fray at every turn. With Congress split, he cannot be above the fight: both drawn in and affected by the consequences. The debt limit debate perfectly illustrates this. Obama clearly did not want to be part of this battle, one he could easily and early joined, yet he kept getting drawn into, and dragged down by, it.

The American people clearly show their frustration with all three points of Washington's political triangle. According to a Gallup tracking poll released on August 14, Obama's approval rating was just 39 percent -- his presidency's lowest point -- yet that's still higher than Congress's generally recorded ratings.

Washington's internecine battles undoubtedly are exacting a toll on all three, but it is Obama who faces the heaviest price. As contradictory as this may seem, considering his higher approval ratings, there is an enormous difference between congressional and presidential elections: America itself. Obama is the only one who must run nationally. Senators and members of the House run in much smaller electorates, most of which are much less evenly split between party and ideological camps than the nation.

While Washington's three-way split effectively forecloses triangulation for Obama, it opens the way even wider for a center-seeking outsider. And with Obama foreclosed, the only one who can fill that role this year is not a Democrat, but a Republican. Unlike previous elections when the seemingly center-seeking presidential candidate was Clinton, and then Obama, only a Republican can play the part in this presidential race.

Washington's three-way power split has opened up a rare "fourth way" route to the White House for a Republican. "Quadrangulation" is an opportunity Democratic strategists must recognize and dread. And it is one Republican strategists must recognize and seize if their candidate is to be successful next November.

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About the Author

J.T. Young served in the Department of Treasury and the Office of Management and Budget from 2001 to 2004 and as a Congressional staff member from 1987 to 2000.