The Tyranny of Triangulation

John Kerry and Joe Lieberman have a lot in common. Both went to Yale. Both are senators from the Northeast. Both are prominent, well-liked members of the Democratic caucus. And both very much want to be president someday.

But when top Republicans -- notably Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott and House Minority Whip Tom Delay -- smeared Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle in March for mildly criticizing the war on terrorism, Kerry and Lieberman reacted in very different ways. Kerry stood up at a New Hampshire fundraiser the next day and blasted Daschle's attackers forcefully and by name. "Let me be clear tonight to Senator Lott and to Tom DeLay: One of the lessons that I learned in Vietnam -- a war they did not have to endure -- and one of the basic vows of commitment that I made to myself, was that if I ever reached a position of responsibility, I would never stop asking questions that make a democracy strong."

Lieberman, for his part, put in a call to the editorial page of The Wall Street Journal. Technically, the op-ed that appeared a few days later could be considered a defense of Daschle. "Those who were 'disgusted' by Tom Daschle's sensible questions about the war should recalibrate their outrage meters," Lieberman wrote. But most of the piece enumerated Lieberman's own disagreements with Daschle. As in: "I disagree with those of my colleagues, including some Democrats, who are already pressing for a plan for withdrawal from Afghanistan." And: "I disagree with some of my fellow Democrats who complain about what they view as expanding war goals." And: "Some Democrats are challenging the president's proposal to raise spending on our military by $48 billion next year. I disagree.…In fact, I would advocate even more strategic spending on defense."

For Democrats who had welcomed the new Joe -- the vice-presidential candidate who embraced Al Gore's hard-edged campaign themes and emerged as an eloquent critic of the Republican alternatives -- this looked a lot like the old Joe. Instead of taking the opportunity to fire a shot across the GOP bow, as Kerry did, Lieberman fired off a few little policy thrusts, positioning himself as the reasonable moderate between the Bush White House and his loyal-but-sadly-misguided "fellow Democrats." Instead of vigorously defending his party and his leader, Lieberman triangulated them. Instead of going for the jugular, Lieberman went for the Journal.

It wasn't the first time Lieberman shied away from a partisan battle. Take the environment, a matter on which Lieberman's heart is clearly in the right place. Although Lieberman's voting record on environmental issues is excellent, he's often seemed unwilling to hit the White House where it hurts. Last year, Lieberman repeatedly threatened to subpoena internal documents from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to find out why it was rescinding or blocking a host of Clinton-era environmental regulations. But neither the documents nor the subpoenas have since materialized, even after Democrats took over the Senate the following summer.

Similarly, although environmentalists praise Lieberman for attacking Bush's "feeble" global-warming policy last spring, they haven't forgotten that a few months later the senator -- who chairs the Senate's Clean Air, Wetlands, and Climate Change subcommittee -- skipped a key Senate hearing at which Democrats grilled EPA head Christie Whitman on that very issue. (Where was Lieberman? At the White House, working with Bush on the president's faith-based initiative.) And while Lieberman has made a big deal out of his vow last November to filibuster any bill that allowed drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) -- a vow he honored during last week's ANWR debate -- environmentalists were more impressed when Kerry made the same promise seven months before Lieberman.

But the best example is Enron. One major reason Democrats have failed to get traction on the issue is that Lieberman has, so far, been unwilling to play hardball as chairman of the Senate's Governmental Affairs Committee. (It's not the only committee investigating Enron, but it has primary jurisdiction over fraud and corruption within the executive branch.) Three months after Lieberman said he would launch an investigation of Enron's collapse, the committee has held only a handful of hearings and has yet to subpoena a single Bush administration official. Instead, Lieberman recently sent "requests" for information to Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham, White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card, and others -- the congressional equivalent of "pretty-please-with-sugar-on-top." (They ignored the deadline for responding.)

Compare Lieberman's Enron investigation with Fred Thompson's wide-ranging probe into fundraising abuses during the 1996 election. Under Thompson, who chaired Governmental Affairs until the Republicans lost the Senate, the committee held 33 days of hearings over three months, interviewed 200 witness, and issued over 400 subpoenas. Dozens of them went to Clinton administration officials such as Erskine Bowles, Harold Ickes, Bruce Babbitt, and Mack McLarty, throwing the White House into disarray for months.

But Lieberman already seems to have moved past investigating connections between Enron and the Bush administration. At the beginning of April, Lieberman gave what aides billed as a major, Enron-related speech in New York titled "Business Ethics in the Post-Enron Era." Enron, Lieberman told his audience, was "a grand metaphor" -- not for the dangers of market fundamentalism or crony capitalism, but "for the real human problems that profit pressure can produce when…it is unchecked by personal principles or business ethics." President Bush, Lieberman suggested, should create a task force of "respected former CEOs and investor advocates" to think up new accounting and oversight regulations -- the same Bush who appointed accounting-industry lobbyist Harvey Pitt to head the Securities and Exchange Commission and Ken Lay pal Pat Wood to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

Why won't Lieberman fight? One reason is that Lieberman's centrism defines both the ideological tenor of his politics and his political temperament -- the excruciating caution, the constant feeling for the boundaries of acceptable political opinion. Unlike a Henry Waxman or a Ted Kennedy -- or even, for that matter, a Bill Clinton -- Lieberman doesn't seem to enjoy the fight. By all accounts, he is not a man driven by ideological passion but one who prizes his reputation as a pragmatic, reasonable, statesmanlike politician.

Unfortunately, the Washington opinion makers who dole out such plaudits prize high-minded displays of bipartisanship -- like criticizing your own president or co-sponsoring bills with Republicans -- and frown upon the dirty rough-and-tumble of partisan combat. (Republicans don't care what The Washington Post thinks, which is one reason Bush won in Florida and DeLay still runs the House.) So it's not surprising that immediately upon taking over the Governmental Affairs Committee, Lieberman declared that he would "not use the powers that come with this committee chairmanship to practice the politics of personal attacks and destruction."

It's an impulse that seems to have hamstrung Lieberman's Enron investigation. True, Lieberman is hobbled by his own Enron problem: Along with a number of other Democrats, he has taken campaign donations from the company in the past. But it's no coincidence that all of Lieberman's subpoenas so far have gone to Enron and Arthur Andersen executives, and that his hearings this spring have focused on management skulduggery rather than White House malfeasance. Months ago, after all, conventional wisdom decreed -- before a single Bush Administration official had testified under oath -- that Enron was a business scandal rather than a political one. And for a politician of Lieberman's sensibilities, it doesn't pay to get too far ahead of the conventional wisdom.

Unless, of course, you want to win. Investigating the administration's Enron connections needn't devolve into a Fred Thompson-style crusade or, God forbid, descend to Dan Burton levels of fishing-expedition excess (final tally: 1,048 subpoenas issued to the Clinton administration). There are any number of credible, specific allegations about which top administration officials should be forced to testify under oath. How about Dick Cheney's phone call to the Los Angeles Times in April 2001, in which he expressed strong opposition to electricity price caps -- a day after Ken Lay met with the vice president to discuss his strong opposition to price caps? Or the White House's unprecedented diplomatic intervention regarding the sale of a Dahbol, India, power plant in which Enron owned a majority stake? Or Office of Management and Budget head Mitch Daniels' efforts to get House Republicans to repeal the corporate alternative minimum tax -- a matter that Lay had personally discussed with him?

Splitting the difference -- positioning oneself as the reasonable middle between two extremes -- can be an effective strategy for playing political defense, as Clinton proved in fending off an energized, angry Republican majority after 1994. Through his judicious use of the veto and mastery of the bully pulpit, Clinton triangulated in a way that forced compromises and controlled the political agenda. But it's a rotten way to run an offense. The Democrats are still, effectively, Washington's minority party. And the dynamics of political opposition -- especially in the Senate -- put a premium on party loyalty, caucus discipline, and a touch of ruthlessness. The Republicans learned this lesson long ago. Has Joe Lieberman?