Hillary's Premature Triangulation

Sen. Hillary Clinton faces tonight’s Iowa caucuses not as the inevitable Democratic presidential nominee but seriously challenged by Sen. Barack Obama, thanks in no small part to committing a strategic error: premature triangulation. The problem is reflected by what happened to a proposal for a simplified, though sweeping, health care plan.

One longtime Democratic consultant, not involved in any campaign this time, suggested that Clinton propose a genuine universal health care scheme. Everybody would be covered by Medicare, except people who chose to retain their private health insurance plans. The consultant gave the idea to somebody close to the senator, but the intermediary refused to pass it on to the candidate. He said it never would get beyond Mark Penn and his strategy of triangulation.

Penn, a professional pollster who was political adviser to President Bill Clinton, is chief strategist for the Hillary Clinton campaign. He has embraced the triangulation — coming over as a third force somewhere between liberal and conservative poles — that characterized Bill Clinton’s politics after 1994, based on advice from Dick Morris. To many Democratic operatives, Penn’s triangulation prematurely introduced a general election strategy, when in fact the party nomination was still in doubt.

Health care is particularly sensitive for Sen. Clinton. Her failed 1993-94 plan is blamed inside Democratic ranks for the Republican takeover in the ’94 elections and for freezing the entire health issue for a decade. While her current call for mandatory health care coverage might seem radical, it is criticized on the left as embracing “shared responsibility” with private health insurance firms (similar to plans by Republican Govs. Mitt Romney in Massachusetts and Arnold Schwarzenegger in California). That looks like triangulation.

It was even more obviously triangulation in September, when Clinton voted for a resolution declaring that the Iranian Revolutionary Guard is a terrorist organization. The other three Democratic senators seeking the presidential nomination — Obama, Joseph Biden and Christopher Dodd — all opposed the resolution on grounds it would give President Bush a pretext for invading Iran (though Obama was not present for the vote). Clinton, while attacking Bush’s Iraq policy, did not want to seem soft on Iran’s Holocaust-denying president vowing the destruction of Israel.

Penn’s strategy from the start was predicated on the inevitability of Clinton’s nomination so that the real concern was to position her to run against the Republicans by making clear she was no more a hard leftist than her husband had been. Iowa, with its passionately liberal caucus-goers not suited for triangulation, always was a problem for Clinton. Early polls there gave the lead to John Edwards, running on a class-warfare, populist platform.

But Edwards, an unlikely threat beyond Iowa, did not worry the Clinton camp. His lead was considered a holdover from his strong second-place showing there in 2004. Clinton’s concern soon became the unexpected rise of Obama. While one major national pollster now is saying that he believes Clinton will finish third in Iowa, her supporters do not consider that really bad news, so long as it is Edwards, not Obama, who finishes first.

In order to win in Iowa, Clinton stresses “experience” (suggesting that support for Obama requires “a leap of faith”). With many more Democrats desiring “change,” voters preferring “experience” may constitute only 30 percent in Iowa (though that may be enough to win).

The threat of Obama winning Iowa makes it white-knuckle time for Clinton. With Obama ahead in some New Hampshire polls, a double loss for Clinton in the first two tests of 2008 raises the specter of Howard Dean’s total collapse four years ago after losing in Iowa and New Hampshire.

Hillary Clinton is surely no Howard Dean. Furthermore, Michael Dukakis finished third in Iowa in 1988 and went on to be nominated (as was the case on the Republican side for Ronald Reagan in 1980 and George H.W. Bush in 1988 after losing Iowa). But Obama winning in Iowa could be fatal for Hillary Clinton. It is believed in Democratic circles that Mark Penn, as the advocate of triangulation, would be the scapegoat, with Bill Clinton leading the trashing of the strategy that helped make him president.