Hey, Democrats: The Clinton era is finally over, and "triangulation" is dead at last

After the 2022 midterms, the Bill Clinton strategy of constant rightward shift is bound for history's dustbin

Published December 20, 2022 5:45AM (EST)

US President Bill Clinton poses for photographs after addressing the nation from the Oval Office in the White House 10 June, 1999. (JOYCE NALTCHAYAN/AFP via Getty Images)
US President Bill Clinton poses for photographs after addressing the nation from the Oval Office in the White House 10 June, 1999. (JOYCE NALTCHAYAN/AFP via Getty Images)

Now that the midterm elections are officially over, it's abundantly clear that predictions about the death of Democratic political fortunes were, as the saying goes, greatly exaggerated. But there is a funeral of sorts that Democrats should be noting. Not a funeral for MAGA extremism, which, unfortunately, is very much still alive and kicking. This is a funeral for an old, destructive, morally bankrupt political philosophy. In the wake of the 2022 midterms, triangulation is dead.

As the mythology goes, it was strategist Dick Morris who birthed the political concept of triangulation. In 1994, after Democrats were trounced in the midterm elections — with Republicans winning control of both houses of Congress for the first time in 42 years — Morris slithered into the Oval Office and convinced then-President Bill Clinton that he should pursue a proverbial "third way": a new course that would accommodate "the needs the Republicans address" while still hewing in some way, albeit vaguely, to liberal priorities and principles. A more honest description of triangulation would be Democrats betraying their base and trying to woo swing voters by embracing Republican policy positions and ideas. It was triangulation that led Democrats to push welfare reform, free trade agreements, school privatization and the expansion of the carceral state — all ideas birthed in conservative think tanks. This did not exactly lead to decades of unfettered Democratic political Valhalla, but it definitely led to increased pain and alienation on the part of Black and brown voters as well as many working-class whites. (It's no coincidence that Morris, who once called himself a Democrat, is now a Republican.)  

After the results of the 2022 midterms, can we agree now that triangulation is dead? Sen. Raphael Warnock's win in the Georgia Senate runoff is a perfect case in point. As demographic changes fuel new, multiracial, multigenerational battlegrounds like Georgia, the Democratic coalition, and thus the necessary strategy, look a lot different. To win, Warnock needed high energy from a diverse base, as well as persuasion of voters who were more on the fence. He did that by embracing progressive American values like equality, freedom and justice, and by running on and defending Democratic ideas, not Republican ones. While he prides himself on getting things done for Georgians by working across the aisle, Warnock's political strategy didn't depend on embracing conservative ideas, but rather finding common ground on a core Democratic idea — government investment in everything from local infrastructure to education. He was a persuasive progressive.  

We saw this nationally in the 2022 midterms, as well. Even amid voter anger at Roe v. Wade being overturned and concerns about democracy, the political headwinds facing Democratic candidates were undeniably gale-force in this election. Pundits, including triangulation-infused political strategists like those at Third Way, predicted that concerns about economics and inflation would create a red wave that washed away Democratic majorities. In reality, they failed to understand the power of Dobbs and democracy together to overcome pundit predictions about major losses. A post-election poll released after the midterms by Way to Win shows that among Democrats and independents, the combination of Dobbs and democracy outweighed concerns over inflation.

Triangulation-infused strategists predicted that inflation would drive a red wave. They failed to understand the power of Dobbs and democracy — or the persuasive power of progressive ideas.

In case after case, persuasive progressive Democrats building coalitions based on core values outperformed not only MAGA extremists but also cautious neoconservative centrists. Another good example of this was in Pennsylvania. John Fetterman centered his U.S. Senate campaign around legalizing marijuana, reforming the criminal justice system, increasing the minimum wage and supporting labor unions. He attacked the filibuster and corporate tax giveaways. Fetterman was not the preferred candidate of the Democratic Party establishment — that was former Marine and prosecutor Conor Lamb, whom Fetterman defeated in the primary. And Fetterman wasn't even able to run a full-fledged campaign in the general election, while recovering from a stroke. But Fetterman not only beat Republican Mehmet Oz, he beat even Joe Biden's 2020 margins in almost every county in the state. Way to Win's post-election poll found that abortion ranked nearly equal to jobs and the economy on Pennsylvania voters' minds. Additionally, the poll found a gulf between moderates and conservatives in the Keystone State on all matters, from the economy and inflation (with 80% of conservatives and 44% of moderates citing concerns) to protecting democracy (with 17% of conservatives and 28% of moderates citing concerns) to abortion and reproductive freedoms (just 3% of conservatives but 27% of moderates cited concerns). On the other hand, there was very little daylight between moderates and self-described progressives on those same issues. All available evidence would suggest that Fetterman's policy positioning was the opposite of a liability: It helped persuade a coalition of moderate to progressive voters to deliver his victory, whereas triangulating to the right to court moderates would surely have turned off some progressives. 

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We saw similar examples across the country. In the House of Representatives, Rep. Matt Cartwright (Pennsylvania's 8th district) and Rep. Pat Ryan (New York's 19th) embraced progressive messages, from economic arguments like supporting Medicare for All and fighting against utility monopolies to protecting our freedoms in the wake of the Dobbs decision. Statewide, Arizona cannot be overlooked, with candidates like Gov.-elect Katie Hobbs embracing the movements that have shifted her state over time — like the Dreamers in Arizona advocating for immigration reform. Hobbs forged a coalition with independent, moderate voters and progressives to reject MAGA Republicans, giving Democrats a chance to govern in an emergent Southwest state.

Pre-election, the political chattering class was awash in hand-wringing prognostication that Latino voters were turned off by progressive positions and thus slipping away from Democrats. Again, the opposite was true. Nationally Latinos still favor Democrats by a two to one margin. In Arizona, nearly two-thirds of Latino voters supported Democratic candidates, proving decisive in the U.S. Senate, governor's and secretary of state's races. In closely contested elections up and down the ticket, Latinos made the difference for Democrats. This is also, incidentally, why winning political strategy comes from grassroots organizations that understand the reality on the ground, not polls and pundits and national "strategists" (who keep getting showered with resources even though they keep losing).

It's time we recognize that the goal of triangulation was never really to help Democrats. Triangulation was a strategy designed to prop up the status quo. It's corporate conservative hegemony masquerading as ingenious political thinking when, in fact, what is actually effective strategy also turns out to be moral: standing up for principled positions of opportunity, justice and freedom that animate ordinary America's hearts, desires and daily lives, and inspire people to vote.  Working people want a raise. Women and young people want abortion rights. Parents want quality public schools that teach the truth. And the American people will enthusiastically show up and fight for candidates who not only fight back against MAGA-GOP extremism but fight for the freedoms and rights that directly improve our lives.  

Triangulation is dead. Or if it isn't yet, Democrats would be wise to put it out of its misery — for the sake of enduring electoral victory and real, meaningful change.

By Tory Gavito

Tory Gavito is the president and co-founder of Way to Win.

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Bill Clinton Commentary Democrats Dick Morris Elections John Fetterman Moderates Progressives Raphael Warnock