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Can Joe Biden ‘Triangulate’ Like Bill Clinton Did in 1994?

Joe Biden. Image Credit: Gage Skidmore.
U.S. President Joe Biden reacts as he makes a statement about the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas shortly after Biden returned to Washington from his trip to South Korea and Japan, at the White House in Washington, U.S. May 24, 2022. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

It’s inaccurate to say Joe Biden was a moderate or a centrist politician. As a senator, Biden was always at the center of the Democrat Party. Still, based on that, he has shown the capacity to triangulate. 

So, can he triangulate again after the 2022 mid-term elections the way Bill Clinton triangulated after the 1994 elections? I might have to triangulate a bit on that answer.

Liberal Majority Presents a Struggle

The worst blow to the Biden presidency came before he was sworn in, when in January 2021, two Democrats won Senate runoff elections in Georgia to deliver a functional majority to the party. 

Before that, Biden’s instincts would have been to cut deals with his old buddy Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky). 

If Republicans had a slim Senate majority, the bipartisan infrastructure plan would have likely still passed. Biden could have looked back on 2021 as a success. He could have said he brought the two parties together for meaningful legislation and delivered on an infrastructure bill that Barack Obama and Donald Trump only promised. 

Biden could have also used McConnell as the perfect foil for not pushing extreme legislation on election overhauls or massive spending bills on climate and expanding the welfare state. Instead, he backed all these hopeless proposals, which made him look like a failure in his first year because the infrastructure bill was overshadowed. 

The Big Blue Wave Washes Away Progress

Because Democrats have a House and Senate majority, the Biden White House faces pressure from progressives in his party about the need to do more, and top White House staffers such as Ron Klain and Susan Rice seem to respond to the fringe elements. Moreover, Biden seemed to listen to journalist Jon Meacham and a group of historians who told him that his presidency could be as historic as that of Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson.

Despite FDR and LBJ winning landslides with big majorities in Congress, Biden seemed to believe this. Biden waited until he was president to move to the left (though not the fringe) of the Democrat Party. He could have thrown his arms around Joe Manchin and Krysten Sinema and continued to be in the center of his party. Instead, he’s managed to make Manchin and Sinema look more powerful than the president. 

It’s still early, but it’s looking very bad for Democrats going into the 2022 election. We don’t know if it will be a repeat of 1994 when Republicans won control of the House and the Senate. If it is, can Biden pivot the way Bill Clinton did after a midterm slaughter?

Will Biden Remain Adrift if there is a Red Wave?

Triangulation is a political metaphor drawn from sailing, when the sailor is tacking with the wind, deviating from a course to angle back toward it. As easy as it might be to think this is just how unprincipled politicians operate, Clinton was particularly good at this. 

Clinton, with the guidance from political strategist Dick Morris, declared “the era of big government is over,” and managed to look Republican-lite while casting Newt Gingrich as a scary Republican. 

The answer is that Joe Biden can do Clinton-style triangulation. The bigger question is will he? For the sake of this analysis, let’s assume Biden will be running for re-election in 2024.

Clinton very successfully pulled off a Republican-lite campaign in 1996. But it wasn’t a radical change. Certainly, Clinton moved right after 1994, but he ran in 1992 as a “New Democrat,” pitching himself as a centrist. While Biden ran as a uniter, he didn’t run as a different kind of Democrat. 

Also, in the 1990s, moderation was better politics with a lot more swing voters. We are mainly living in an era where most voters have made up their minds—particularly about any incumbent president. 

Is Triangulation the Right Strategy?

Another option for Joe Biden could lie in Clinton’s two successors. George W. Bush and Barack Obama didn’t try to triangulate when they successfully ran for their respective second terms. They doubled down to appeal to their base. Bush called for a constitutional amendment to define marriage as only between a man and woman and worked on turning out evangelical voters. Obama’s campaign surrogates ranted about a “war on women” and elevated Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards as a speaker at the 2012 Democratic National Convention. 

Trump, in his losing effort in 2020, also didn’t make an effort to appeal beyond his base. It just isn’t Trump’s style to do anything other than double down. Though he oddly had more luck at expanding his voters than either Bush or Obama, despite losing. Trump garnered more nonwhite voters than any Republican candidate in decades.

Trump could point to a pre-COVID economy, that included a strong job market, energy independence, tax reform, and a kept promise to replace trade deals, that appealed enough to non-traditional Republican voters. Had he not gone out of his way to offend other voters, he likely could have had a winning coalition.  

Clinton had a similarly strong record to point to, that voters liked despite Clinton’s icky personal flaws. This helped to pivot. But today, if a Democrat president tried to be Republican-lite, or if a Republican tried to be Democrat-lite, they would risk losing large swaths of their activist base that might sit at home. 

Any president today might have less to gain from triangulation today. The Clinton pivot came when Washington was more functional and fewer people took politics so personally. 

Fred Lucas is the chief national affairs correspondent for The Daily Signal and a frequent writer for Fox News Digital. You can follow him @FredLucasWH. Nothing written here is to be construed as representing any other person or entity.

Written By

Fred Lucas is chief national affairs correspondent for The Daily Signal and co-host of "The Right Side of History" podcast. Lucas is also the author of "Abuse of Power: Inside The Three-Year Campaign to Impeach Donald Trump."