Let the Triangulation Begin

by Rich Lowry

I’ve never understood why so many conservatives are so adamant that President Obama won’t triangulate. Yes, there are some structural obstacles, as Jonah pointed out the other day. Obamacare passed, forcing him to defend a big, unpopular piece of left-wing legislation in a way Clinton didn’t have to. The left is noisier and more influential than when Clinton was in office. Also, as John Harris wrote a while ago, it’s easy to exaggerate the ease with which Clinton triangulated, when it really was a wrenching process.

All that said, as I’ve argued before, I believe Obama is going to do some triangulation because, 1) he has no other option–big left-wing initiatives are closed off for now; 2) he wants to get re-elected. You’ll often hear conservatives say Obama is such a sincere left-winger that he won’t and can’t move to the center. But he was just as sincere a left-winger in 2008, when he campaigned on tax cuts and examining the budget line-by-line and living within our means. It’s basically an axiom of American political life that liberals who want to get elected or re-elected president have to trim their sails. And we can assume that Obama, no matter what he says about how he’s willing to be a righteous one-termer, wants to get reelected.

So he’s going to triangulate. How much is the question. His proposal today for a federal pay freeze is a move to the center in a decidedly minor key. But it’s also relatively painless. If he finds a half-dozen of these kind of moves, he might soften his image as a partisan liberal a bit. Not enough, though, which is why I think he’s going to have to come up with some sort of big proposal for not terribly credible budget reductions. Say, a 10-year plan that generates a fairly large number for savings over that period, but that backloads most of it to year 6 and beyond, when he’ll no longer be in office even if reelected.

Consider yourself warned!