At the outset of his presidency, Bill Clinton was in trouble. The economy was not yet booming, the deficit was getting out of control, and the healthcare plan his wife roled out went down in flames. His approval rating dropped below 40%. Frustrated at the situation, Clinton summoned one of his long-time strategists – Dick Morris – to the White House to map out a comeback independent of his then aides. What they came up with came to be called “triangulation.”
Triangulation is the process of finding a position based upon its distance from two fixed points. Politically, Dick Morris’ triangulation was a strategy to place the president above the political fray by triangulating his position based upon the political positions of two fixed points – the Democratic and the Republican parties. Rather than positioning oneself strictly in the center, triangulation aims to take the politician out of the spectrum altogether and cherry-pick popular ideas from both parties. For Bill Clinton, his welfare bill and cuts in capital gains rates are examples of triangulating.
Donald Trump seemed a prime candidate for deploying this strategy while he campaigned. He is certainly a transactional individual and someone who has lampooned both political parties. But, the start of his presidency was nothing of the sort. With Republican control of both the House and the Senate, Trump largely played to his own base and appeared to presume that legislation would be easy to pass. It hasn’t been, with healthcare being the most dramatic example of this. A triangulated response would have been to work towards reforming the flaws and placing patches on Obamacare.
Not only has President Trump not reached out to Democrats, he has used social issues like LGBT rights as wedge issues and failed to condemn white supremacist groups. But, if his strategy does not evolve it is clear that little to nothing will be accomplished legislatively. The gap between the poles of the Republican Party has grown too large to simultaneously satisfy.
However incrementally, things do seem as though they may be changing with Steve Bannon leaving the White House and John Kelly refocusing efforts on results rather than ideology.
Case in point: the debt ceiling negotiations between Trump, Chuck Schumer, and Nancy Pelosi. Raising the debt ceiling has gone from being routine to arduous. Incensed that government spending has not been decreased to levels that are acceptable to them, the “tea party” faction of the Republican Party would have a hard time voting for any debt ceiling package without major concessions. Sensing that Democratic votes would be needed it appears that it was New York Senator Chuck Schumer who made the first move, at least according to reporting by the New York Times. Trump sided with Schumer and Pelosi in a short-term extension of the debt limit by three months, potentially giving Democrats in the House and Senate a strong hand to play in budget negotiations that would include issues such as allocating monies to a border fence and tax reform.
Second case in point: DACA, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. Trump rescinded Obama’s expansion of DACA, but said he did so only to give Congress time for a more permanent solution and deferred the rescinsion by six months. Now, it appears that the outlines of a deal with Congress have taken shape amongst Trump, Schumer, and Pelosi – not between Trump and Congressional Republicans. The three agreed to make DACA permanent law and enhance border security – but not allocate funds for a border wall.
If anything, Donald Trump is the most unpredictable president any of us have seen in our lifetimes. It is never entirely clear what his next move may be and it is too soon to know whether recent events are the beginning of a pattern, or if Trump is attempting to discipline the Republican Congress to be more amenable to his wishes in the future.
Next up on the agenda is likely to be tax reform. Seeing just how the president approaches the potential bill may just give us the guidance we need on how the remainder of his term will go.