Who Triangulates?

Over at The Washington Post, Dan Balz has a slightly alarmist article on the leftward drift that Dean's chairmanship, and the party's new reliance on grassroots donors, might provoke. Standard stuf, to be sure, but he makes an interesting strategic point midway through:

As Dean takes the helm as party chairman, Democrats now face a competition between what might be called the Dean model and the Clinton model, between confrontation and triangulation. This amounts to a contest between a bold reassertion of the party's traditional philosophy that fits the polarized environment of the Bush presidency vs. a less provocative effort to balance core values with centrist ideas that proved successful in the 1990s but has since produced a backlash within the party.

This is a total, and very dangerous, misread. Triangulation is not a strategy for parties to implement, it's a playbook for individual politicians seeking to transcend party status. For them, it's a good idea. The generally acknowledged superstars of the past few years, those with wide support across the electoral divide, have all been triangulators. Clinton, McCain, Giuliani, Arnold. Even Obama's Newsweek cover crowed over his "purpleness". Americans like their politicians to transcend their parties, it makes them larger than life. But parties can't transcend themselves. When they try, and they have, they only succeed in alienating their core voters and losing elections.

Dean shouldn't be trying to lead the party in triangulation. His job, rather, is to make sure the activist base feels confident and connected to the Democratic label, thus freeing our presidential nominees to talk to the whole country. So long as the nation remains closely divided, presidential candidates are going to have to create personas that appeal beyond their party. You can argue about whether that means moderation or hard progressivism, but they're going to have to reach beyond their base. The only way the base can withstand such a quadrennial rejection is to forge strong bonds with the party leadership, who can then reassure them through the presidential election. When that's not done, you get Nader in 2000 and Buchanan in 1992. That's why you don't triangulate the party, you use the party to enable triangulation by the candidates. And that's why Dean's ascension should be cheered by Democrats left, right, and center. A chair trusted by the base, rather than installed as the President's apparatchik, is exactly what's needed.