When the consultant Dick Morris was famously advising President Bill Clinton in the run-up to the 1996 election, he coined the term “triangulation” to describe his moderate political strategy.
It was based on a simple sailing analogy, acknowledging that you can’t rely on the wind to take you on the shortest path to your destination. Instead, a good sailor has to be able to tack — adjusting the sails to move back and forth across a straight route.
In the case of Clinton, that meant trying to chart a course down the political center by gently tacking across it. He would announce a slightly left-of-center policy one day followed by a slightly right-of-center policy the next.
That was a smart way to navigate during the mid-1990s, when the political winds were relatively calm. Clinton cruised to a comfortable victory on the equivalent of a perfect day for sailing.
Things are a bit different today. The waters are choppier and there are storm clouds brewing on the horizon. A good sailor would try to anticipate the winds and waves and get out in front of the swell.
An experienced or naturally gifted sailor can sometimes feel the change coming, but when in doubt he or she can always read the barometer.
As for the current conditions, the pressure first started to change gradually during President George W. Bush’s aggressive drive to reform Social Security. Recognized by everyone as a blatant attempt to dismantle a successful and critical underpinning of our modern social contract, Bush’s plan went nowhere.
Then Hurricane Katrina struck, simultaneously revealing both the insensitivity and ineptitude of Bush’s approach to governing. At the same time, the corruption of the Republican congressional power structure floated to the surface in the form of scandals involving House Majority Leader Tom DeLay and lobbyist Jack Abramoff.
Most recently, the manipulation of pre-war intelligence and the related indictment of I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby for lying about his role in leaking the identity of a C.I.A. agent demonstrated the moral bankruptcy of the Bush administration.
When such an awesome collection of forces combines to create a major storm, a sailor must be bold and decisively run full-sail ahead of it. Sit passively and you’ll get blown away and washed out. Tacking is not an option.
So far it is not clear that Democrats understand how to sail in today’s challenging environment. They swept the two most important races of this month’s elections in a clear sign of the storm that is approaching. But some are still recommending a cautious course.
A fast sprint ahead doesn’t have to be radical. Republicans would have you believe that a progressive agenda is extreme when in fact it is moderate and sensible. The policies pushed forward by the Republicans — from creating enormous budget deficits to eviscerating college aid programs to refusing to ban torture — are truly dangerous and radical.
To get ahead of the storm, Democrats first must gauge the winds that are already blowing. That means presenting a strategy for resolving the conflict in Iraq and bringing our troops home; offering a deficit reduction plan and casting it in terms of reducing our economic dependence on foreign nations; and advocating for a national energy initiative that diversifies fuel sources and reverses environmental degradation.
Then they should anticipate the winds that are sure to come. For instance, the new Medicaid drug benefit just went into effect and unfortunately it is certain to wreak havoc on the lives of those who depend on the program for their prescription medications. Knowing that, Democrats should now begin to campaign for a better alternative.
In these ways the Democrats can raise their sail high, but they need to remain steady and consistent as they steer ahead of the storm, because the lack of a confident and competent navigator has raised doubts among the crew and passengers.
It is more risky to sit still than to plow forward, because the storm is coming, and it will either push the Democratic ship along or capsize it. Nature abhors a vacuum and no political party lasts forever. If the Democrats don’t recognize their opportunity and address the crucial issues of the day, the American people may very well find another vessel that will.