03/29/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Triangulation by Dummies

I have one question for the White House: Who, exactly, are you going to gain support with by enacting a spending freeze that isn't exactly a spending freeze?

  • Liberals balk because it sets limits on what could be spent on important programs, while letting bloated budgets like the Defense Department grow unchecked.
  • Conservatives walk away because they're never going to support the White House anyway, and now have a nice talking point - this isn't a real spending freeze, it's a political gimmick, because it isn't across the board.
  • Independents want to see a Washington that's responsive to their needs - and nothing about a spending freeze helps create jobs, or make their lives easier. Plus, oh yeah, they're pretty open to buying into the whole talking point that this is just a gimmick, since their view of President Obama is crashing hard right now.

Obviously, the White House has made the decision to triangulate their way through the 2010 elections. Now, I completely disagree with that strategy (more on that in a moment), but if you're going to triangulate, at least do it right.

Triangulation, developed in the Clinton White House by soul-less consultant Dick Morris, was a pretty simple concept - cherry pick and co-opt small issues from both wings of the political spectrum and make them your own, to attract their supporters and help blunt attacks from either side. On everything else, let the left and right bloody each other to death, while you stay above the fray.

What the Obama White House has done is very different. They've taken a major issue, if not the biggest issue, the Federal budget, and tried to mush two completely opposite ideas together. On one hand, you have the conservative 'spending freeze,' which is really a nice way of Republicans saying that they want to starve Federal programs and see them wither on the vine, as Newt Gingrich once said. On the other hand, you have progressives seeing the need to fund important government programs, especially in tough times.

Put them together, and you have a jumbled mess - an aggregate spending freeze, that holds down the total amount of discretionary spending, but allows cuts in one program to pay for increases in another. Rather than attract supporters from both sides, the transparently political move manages to piss off pretty much everyone. It's triangulation by dummies.

Now, even if they did it the right way, it's a dumb strategy. The essence of triangulation is that it tamps down the base, on both sides. By co-opting and adopting the position of the opposition (in this case, a spending freeze), you knowingly dampen the enthusiasm of the base. To make up the difference, you need to tamp down the enthusiasm of the other side, as well.

That relies on the other side's base being rational actors - that they accept at face value that you're butting heads with your own base. In 1995, that worked for Bill Clinton because Newt Gingrich and Republicans took back Congress, and the Republican base calmed down some, placated by the win. They accepted Bill Clinton's efforts on welfare reform and other matters, which dampened attacks they might have otherwise made. The ancillary effect of that? Fewer frothy mouthed attacks that influenced the opinion of independents. Rationality won the day.

Today, however, the anger from conservatives is at a fever pitch and completely irrational. No matter what President Obama does, they will oppose, and oppose strongly. It doesn't much matter what it is.

So, what would be the net effect of triangulation right now, even if done right? Tamping down your base, without offsetting it by tamping down the other side's base, whose anger will continue to influence independents who are already prone to anger. That's a net loss, a recipe for electoral disaster. That's leaving aside the fact that disastrous economic times today call for bold action, not trimming around the edges.

During the campaign, then-Senator Obama said he wanted to be a transformational President. He still has that chance. But, if he sticks with triangulation done wrong, he can only look forward to joining Jimmy Carter in three years.