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Posted at 1:44 PM ET, 01/ 5/2011

Triangulation, Republican-style

By Chris Cillizza

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney is already running against his party. AP Photo/Cliff Owen

Much has been made of the idea that President Obama will use Congressional Democrats as a foil over the next two years -- triangulating against his own side to grab the ideological center and appeal to electorally critical independent voters.

But, there's been almost no focus on how potential 2012 Republican presidential candidates may do that same sort of triangulation against the new GOP House majority.

With only two sitting member of Congress -- South Dakota Sen. John Thune and Indiana Rep. Mike Pence -- considering runs for president, there seems a very strong likelihood that would-be national candidates will seek to burnish their outsider credentials by running against the actions of their party in Washington.

And, there's already been some evidence of that sort of triangulation during the lame duck session of Congress late last year.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, the de facto frontrunner in the 2012 field, drew national headlines when he came out against the tax cut compromise in a USA Today op-ed.

Wrote Romney:

"Given the unambiguous message that the American people sent to Washington in November, it is difficult to understand how our political leaders could have reached such a disappointing agreement."


Romney's position won him no friends among House (or Senate) Republicans and even led Thune to offer a not-so-veiled shot across his bow, deriding those who stood on the sidelines and criticized a deal that prevented a tax increase.

(Romney wasn't done triangulating during the lame duck. He also opposed the new START treaty that the Senate approved in the waning days of 2010.)

The strategic underpinnings of Romney's positions on the tax compromise and START are sound.

Romney wants to make clear he isn't part of the Washington crowd and isn't interested in putting his stamp of approval on anything that hands President Obama a legislative victory.

Romney's interest -- and the interests of people like former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (among others) -- is in presenting himself as a clear alternative to President Obama, not cutting deals with the Democratic president.

And, while no congressional Republican would say that their goals is compromise with this president, the legislative realities -- split control of the House and Senate -- suggest that deal-making is the only realistic course for the passage of any major pieces of legislation between now and 2012.

Given that reality, if there are major immigration or energy bills moved by the 112th Congress, you can expect the likes of Romney and his presidential brethren to come out against them -- making the argument that they give too much away to Democrats at a time when compromise is the wrong course.

The likely triangulation of congressional Republicans by their party's presidential candidates serves as a potent reminder of how difficult it is to run and win a national nomination while serving as a member of Congress.

Voting on a series of controversial measures where compromise is almost always necessary is absolutely anathema to the purist mindset carried by the bases of each party, bases that have outsized control in deciding the identity of the party's presidential nominees. (It's why Bob Dole resigned from the Senate to run for president in 1996 and why Bill Frist's presidential aspirations never took off in 2008.)

There is some danger for presidential candidates in triangulating against their own side -- most notably that in so doing they create a cadre of people willing to speak ill of them to other politicians and, as importantly, the media.

But, in a political environment like this one, making enemies in Washington might not be seen as such a bad thing. Voters, especially Republican primary voters, are very skeptical about their own party leadership in Washington and could well respond positively to a candidate who purposely runs against that group.

Triangulation then may be the name of the game for would-be 2012 candidates in the coming months.

By Chris Cillizza  | January 5, 2011; 1:44 PM ET
Categories:  Republican Party  
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