Home Virginia Politics Blast from the Past: 1990s “Clintonian Triangulation” Returns to 2015 Virginia?

Blast from the Past: 1990s “Clintonian Triangulation” Returns to 2015 Virginia?


I’ve now seen Terry McAuliffe use the same messaging too many times to write it off as a mistake, a fluke, a slip of the tongue, whatever. What messaging is that, you ask?  See here and here, for instance. The key messaging points:

*”‘It’s a lovefest here in Richmond,‘ McAuliffe declared during his “Ask the Governor” segment Thursday morning on WRVA-AM.”

*”‘We all put Virginia first,‘ McAuliffe said, praising Del. S. Chris Jones, R-Suffolk, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee; and Sens. Walter A. Stosch, R-Henrico and Charles J. Colgan, D-Prince Williams, the chairmen of the Senate Finance Committee.”

*”I enjoy working with the legislature.

*”Gov. Terry McAuliffe praised lawmakers for working with him in a bipartisan fashion to produce a budget that safeguarded mutual priorities and serves the best interests of the commonwealth.”

*”McAuliffe also said he was satisfied with the last-minute agreement on ethics reform and reiterated his position that the $100 cap on all gifts ‘is a big deal.'”

*”‘It’s been a great session,’ the governor said Friday night to a delegation of House and Senate members that included eight retiring lawmakers.

We’ve all worked together. We put the partisan politics aside. … It was great teamwork,; he added.”

*”This is the model – we can work together.

Does this not-at-all-subtle happy talk of bipartisanship and how (supposedly) great it is to work across the aisle by a Democrat, coming after said Democrat got his (political) butt seriously kicked last year on Medicaid expansion and other issues, remind you of anything? How about McAuliffe’s BFF Bill Clinton, following the 1994 “Republican Revolution”/”Gingrich Revolution,” in which Republicans saw a net gain of 54 seats in the House of Representatives and eight seats in the Senate? Before that, Bill Clinton had governed basically as a strong progressive, pushing for universal health care (aka, “Hillarycare”); a tax package that, among other things, helped balance the budget by raising tax rates on the wealthy; signing the Brady Bill into law; implementing the “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” policy, which at the time was considered progressive (believe it or not); etc. No, it wasn’t all progressive prior to the Gingrich Revolution (e.g., NAFTA anyone?), but for the most part Clinton pushed for progressive policies in 1993 and 1994, until…cue scary music!

After the 1994 wipeout, of course, Clinton was forced to work with a Republican Congress for the rest of his term in office. That meant scaling back…well, pretty much anything and everthing remotely progressive, and instead turning to advisors like Republican strategist (and all-around right wingnut, as it turns out) Dick Morris to figure out how to “triangulate” himself back to relevance. Here’s what I’m talking about.

The term was first used by President of the United States Bill Clinton’s chief political advisor Dick Morris as a way to describe his strategy for getting Clinton reelected in the 1996 presidential election. In Dick Morris’ words, triangulation meant “the president needed to take a position that not only blended the best of each party’s views but also transcended them to constitute a third force in the debate.” In news articles and books, it is sometimes referred to as “Clintonian triangulation”. Morris advocated a set of policies that were different from the traditional policies of the Democratic Party. These policies included deregulation and balanced budgets. One of the most widely cited capstones of Clinton’s triangulation strategy was when, in his 1996 State of the Union Address, Clinton declared that the “era of big government is over.”

The problems with “triangulation” are legion, but here are three big ones: 1) it adopted Republican/right-wing framing (e.g., the “era of big government is over”) in a harmful way for the country and for the Democratic Party; 2) while it may (or may not; we’ll never really know if he could have done the same or better with a different strategy) have helped Bill Clinton’s approval ratings, Democrats as a whole didn’t do very well at all under “triangulation,” with Democrats not taking back Congress until 2006; and 3) it led to some truly bad policy outcomes, such as the heinous Defense of Marriage Act, plus “the reversal of the Glass-Steagall Act which was designed to prevent financial institutions from getting too big to fail” and “the Commodity Futures Modernization Act which legalized over-the-counter derivatives.

So how does any of this relate to Bill Clinton’s close friend, Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, in 2015? Very simple: based on both rhetoric and action, it appears that McAuliffe is following Clinton’s “triangulation” strategy almost to the letter — praising Republicans, adopting their “framing,” dropping any serious push for progressive legislation (e.g., Medicaid expansion, clean energy expansion, environmental protection, real ethics reform as opposed to the weak/phony charade we saw this session), and basically ceding the political AND policy initiative to the Republican-controlled legislature.

Last but certainly not least, what particularly worries me about this strategy is that it leaves 2015 Virginia Democratic candidates with no overarching message. Actually, it’s worse than that; when the leader of your party says things are going great, I’m working very nicely with the Republican-controlled legislature, thank you very much, then what’s the argument Democrats are supposed to make to voters about why they should turn the State Senate back to Democratic control in November 2015?

To the contrary, the argument McAuliffe is making – just as Clinton did after 1994 in many ways – essentially says that the status quo is fine, no need to change it (e.g., by turning the State Senate back to Democratic control). I mean, as pure Machiavellian “realpolitik,” I understood it (at least on an intellectual level) with Bill Clinton, since he was up for a second term in 1996. But for Terry McAuliffe, who can’t run for governor again, it’s a bit more confusing. The bottom line message I’m hearing, though, is that McAuliffe’s assuming Republican control of the General Assembly (or at least of the House of Delegates) for the remaining 2 years, 10 months of his term, and figuring out how he might achieve some achievements (or even a “legacy”) he can take credit for during the time remaining. You can’t really blame him for that, I suppose, but it kind of leaves the House and Senate Democrats a bit high and dry, sad to say.


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