Triangulation is a name given to a political act in which a candidate in a traditional continuum-based political system tries to position him or herself outside of the continuum, or perfectly balanced in the middle. It is a relatively recent phenomenon on a large scale, although it has been used to some extent for as long as modern politics have existed.
At its most basic, a candidate trying to utilize triangulation is trying to avoid the pitfalls of placing themselves on either end of the traditional Left-Right political system. As more citizens in a democracy find themselves pulled to various ideologies on both sides, aligning oneself too closely with either end of a spectrum runs the risk of alienating voters by appearing too radicalized.
An added bonus of triangulation is that it allows a candidate to cherry-pick which issues they want to take credit for from both ends of the political spectrum. This means the candidate can, through triangulation, appear to agree with their opponent when it makes political sense to do so, and disagree when public opinion is against the opposing viewpoint.
In 1996, during President Bill Clinton’s re-election bid against Republican Bob Dole, his chief political advisor, Dick Morris, articulated a new strategy, which he dubbed triangulation. The idea was to shore up Clinton’s weak spots by catering to certain Republican ideas. Since the Republicans had recently taken the House and the Senate, this made a great deal of sense. Political triangulation allowed Clinton to capitalize on his folksy charm and high approval ratings, while also capturing the general public desire for many mainstream Republican ideas and a kneejerk shying away from traditional Democratic ideas.
The most striking example of Clinton’s use of triangulation came during his State of the Union Address in 1996, when he famously announced that the Era of Big Government was over. The Democratic Party had long held that big government was in fact a beneficial thing, and the idea that big government was something to get away from was a very populist Republican idea. Clinton coupled this statement with other ideas traditionally thought of as Republican policies, including tax cuts, balancing the budget, and reforming welfare. This political triangulation in large part allowed him to capture traditionally Republican states, and easily win reelection.
There is a school of thought among many Democrats in the modern political landscape that triangulation is an outdated methodology, a sort of fluke that worked for Bill Clinton, and to some extent later for Republican George Bush, but which radically failed both Al Gore and John Kerry. Both Gore and Kerry attempted to use triangulation during their presidential bids, and both were unsuccessful.
Al Gore spoke of enormous tax cuts, seen by many as a form of triangulation, but this ultimately backfired, leading many to believe he was ceding ground to George Bush’s position. John Kerry later moved towards the center and right on many issues, most notably the Iraq War, and was lambasted by the Right and the media for “flip flopping.”