A Geometry Lesson

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A very large number of political pundits and reporters have spent the last week demonstrating that they don’t agree at all on the definition of the word “triangulation.” That and, in some cases, that they don’t understand basic geometry.

To me there’s a very short version of this story. President Obama did very publicly this week what Rahm Emanuel and other unnamed aides in his administration have been doing for a long time now. There isn’t too much difference, descriptively, between Obama calling some Democrats sanctimonious, and anonymous officials taunting the AFL for backing Bill Halter in Arkansas.

Presumably, Obama’s been trying to distance himself from the ugly and confusing rancor on Capitol Hill, but realizes he can only accomplish that if he makes a big show of it. Quiet leaks to Beltway reporters won’t get him very far.

That ticked a lot of people off. It also made him approximately the 44th president who’s tried to do this.But criticizing Democrats and Republicans simultaneously isn’t “triangulating” anymore than standing on the middle-point of a line segment creates a triangle.

Here’s triangulator-in-chief Dick Morris. “Triangulate, create a third position, not just in between the old positions of the two parties but above them as well. Identify a new course that accommodates the needs the Republicans address but do it in a way that is uniquely yours.”

That’s not what happened this week. This week, Republicans demanded a bunch of things, Obama OKed many of them, provided a few Democratic priorities got thrown in to the mix, and the GOP agreed. Then Democrats and Obama got into a fight because they didn’t think he drove a hard enough bargain. He disagreed.

Triangulating would have looked a bit more like this: “My conservative friends say we need to give rich people a permanent tax cut. My liberal critics want to raise their taxes now. Both are wrong. But their bickering is a symptom of our broken tax system, and I won’t sign any legislation until Congress passes comprehensive tax reform modeled on the proposal put forth by the chairmen of my fiscal commission.”

That would’ve been crazy. But also, triangulating.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Brian Beutler is TPM’s senior congressional reporter. Since 2009, he’s led coverage of health care reform, Wall Street reform, taxes, the GOP budget, the government shutdown fight and the debt limit fight. He can be reached at brian@talkingpointsmemo.com

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