Trump’s Triangulation

by Jonah Goldberg
As an objective matter, triangulation in politics is almost always a smart move.

EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is Jonah Goldberg’s weekly “news”letter, the G-File. Subscribe here to get the G-File delivered to your inbox on Fridays.

Dear Reader (Particularly you Kentuckians, who know how to appreciate the life-giving glory that is our sun in all its radiant fulgor),

So as Bill Clinton said to the intern the next morning when she asked him, “What’s my name?”: I got nothing.

It feels like pretty much everything that can be said about the DACA “deal” has been said already, though it hasn’t been said by everybody quite yet.

But here’s something that you haven’t heard much, certainly not from me: President Trump has had a pretty good few weeks. This is certainly true when grading on a curve based on his previous weeks’ performance. But that’s a bit like plotting the high points of a dead-cat bounce. No, he’s actually had a legitimately good week or two.

You see, for presidents — and other carbon-based life forms — what counts as a “success” isn’t always what you do, but what you avoid.

(I learned this lesson as a young man after I was kidnapped and forced to live in the fetid dungeons set up for the illegal fighting pits deep below Prague. Any day you could avoid fighting Günther the Undying with his preferred weapon — a long motorcycle chain with a cinderblock at the end — was a good day. The whoosh-whoosh-whoosh-smack-splat sound of that chunk of concrete hitting my friend Lothar’s head still gives me shivers. That’s why I mastered the “Pick him! Pick him!” eyeball gesture, which I still use every now and then when Lowry walks into a meeting and says something like, “Who wants to write the editorial about debt reduction in the next budget?” It works as well on Ramesh as it did on Lothar.)

Whether you want to give President Trump 100 percent of the credit or just some sane amount, the fact is that the federal response to two daunting hurricanes has been, by all accounts, a very good one. I think presidents play a much smaller role in these things than the press (and the public) like to pretend. But you can be sure that if the response had gone badly or if there were even a few convenient excuses to attack Trump over the administration’s response, he would have gotten a ton of blame. Dogs that don’t bark don’t get a lot of attention from the press, but I think people notice these things (hurricane ratings dwarf the typical Politburo-sized panel discussion on Russian collusion).

Then there’s the fact that Trump reached out to the Democrats. Wearing my partisan hat, I want to melt into the Balkan hills and fight the Nazis. Wearing my political partisan hat, however, I don’t like the idea of striking deals with “Chuck and Nancy.” As a conservative, I would prefer it if Trump were more inclined to use DACA as a bargaining chip, as I write in my column today and as NR elucidates in our editorial for the umpteenth time.

But as an objective matter, triangulation in politics is almost always a smart move, at least at first. Do it too much or pick the wrong thing to triangulate on, and it can blow up on you. But as a general proposition, Chuck Schumer was right on the hot mike — whoops, sorry, I meant hot mic. (Chuck on the hot Mike would be different). Anyway, on Thursday, Schumer was (allegedly) caught by a hot mic on the Senate floor saying:

Here’s what I told him: “Mr. President, you are much better off sometimes stepping right and sometimes step left. [If] you have to step just in one direction, you’re boxed.”

This has been a central insight of presidential politics for as long as left and right had any meaning in American life. FDR was slipperier than a greased dachshund; Nixon alternated between using a chair and a whip on conservatives and feeding them red meat; George W. Bush touted himself as a “compassionate conservative” and started his presidency by working with Ted Kennedy on education. Bill Clinton smoked pot but didn’t inhale, said he agreed with opponents of the first Persian Gulf War but would have voted with supporters, picked vacation spots based on how they polled with swing voters, and liked Miller Lite because it was less filling and it tasted great. He followed Yogi Berra’s advice in all things: When you come to a fork in the road, take it. More on that in a minute.

The point is that Trump’s reaching out to the opposition party is normal behavior for presidents. They understand that simply pandering to the base will hurt you with the meaty chunk of voters in the middle of the ideological bell curve. That’s why even when Barack Obama did radical things, he sold them as commonsense “pragmatic” policies. The Left knew what it was getting, and many in the middle thought it all sounded reasonable enough.

The Shock of The New

There are two reasons why Trump’s maneuver seems so weird and came as such a shock to the leaders of Trump Inc., as well as to some of the Trump voters suffering from political Stockholm syndrome. First, Trump’s presidency hasn’t been “normal” in the same way a fluorescent-green cycloptic grizzly bear wearing Mr. Rogers’s sweater as he plays Chopin on a banjo is not “typical.”

The second reason, which is obviously related to the first, is that he’s simply winging it. I am convinced Trump agreed to the debt-ceiling deal last week on the fly in the Oval Office as way to piss off Mitch McConnell and nothing more. He liked the results in the media so, like the tic-tac-toe chicken I mentioned in last week’s “news”letter, he kept pecking in that direction.

If you believed that it was normal for a commander in chief to pull the oars of his White House based on the drumbeats coming from Fox & Friends and Sean Hannity, seeing him suddenly veer off course must come as quite a shock to the system. I’m sure that dude in Grizzly Man, who really believed he was in perfect harmony with the bears of Alaska, couldn’t have been more shocked when his friend started eating his face.

Various & Sundry (In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida Edition):

I have a lot more on my mind, but I’m going to cut this week’s “news”letter atypically short today because I have a mountain of work to do on the book by Monday. But in recompense, herewith an extended version of the V&S section.

Above, I said I’d return to the topic of Bill Clinton’s triangulation, which was going to be the second part of this “news”letter. So, let me make the point more succinctly. There’s a good conversation in this week’s edition of The Editors podcast about Hillary Clinton’s book. As Charlie notes, lots of liberals were — and are — angry that most “Never Trump” conservatives didn’t endorse Hillary (an anger shared by some pro-Trump conservatives seeking a balm for their cognitive dissonance).

There’s nothing (I can think of) in the realm of the possible that Hillary could have done that would have convinced me to endorse her. But the point remains that she could have run a campaign that appealed more to the center. Charlie & Co. credit a hubris in technocratic liberalism that assumes liberals are simply right on every issue, so there’s no need to change position on anything. Bill may have thought he was right on every issue, but he understood that politics is about more than being right — it’s about understanding and wooing people you think are wrong. Every president in our lifetime understood that, save for Barack Obama. The problem is it worked for Obama. Which is why I think that there’s a second reason why Hillary didn’t adapt the way her husband did.

There’s nothing (I can think of) in the realm of the possible that Hillary could have done that would have convinced me to endorse her.

As I wrote repeatedly — to much scorn from the Left — Hillary thought she could use gender the way Obama used race to put together an Obama-style coalition of lefty young people and minorities. But gender and race have different frequencies in American politics and culture. Running a base campaign rooted on the idea that it was “her turn” just wasn’t compelling enough. Also, the fact that Obama wore thin on people by the end of his presidency and devastated the Democratic party should have signaled to Hillary that replaying Obama’s strategy was ill-advised.

Of course, there’s a third factor. Hillary was a known quantity for 30 years, and lots of people who may have liked the idea of a female president didn’t want this woman being president. No one wanted to watch a lugubrious robot on TV for the next four years, particularly when The Trump Show was on a competing channel.

I have a lot of thoughts on Russ Roberts’s essay on tribalism, but as I have almost completed a whole book on tribalism, I’ll save them for later. Meanwhile, you should read his essay.

My Friday column is okay, but I think the first three quotes really capture the nature of the moment we’re in.

Many were sorry to hear that the Cassini space probe crashed into Saturn this week, ending a 20-year mission. I, for one, feel no such remorse. I like space probes that weren’t captured.

Congratulations to Ben Shapiro for his successful foray into the safe-space-for-stupidity at Berkeley. Truth be told, I have mixed emotions about the whole thing. I like and respect Ben, and I’m happy for him that he’s gotten all this attention. But I can’t get past the idiocy of the whole spectacle. I surely disagree with Ben on a few issues (though I don’t know what they are), but the idea that he isn’t a perfectly normal conservative strikes me as bizarre. So, the idea that hordes of people succumbed to St. Vitus’s Dance at the thought of him saying conservative things leaves me oddly numb. In a normal world, there would have been a large contingent of professors and administrators who largely shared Ben’s worldview, given that his worldview is shared by tens of millions of Americans and, until fairly recently, would have been considered fairly conventional even among many Democrats. The fact that Berkeley doesn’t understand that seems like all the reason you’d need to fire the entire administration and start from scratch. What other business would allow itself to become openly hostile to such a massive slice of the market?

In more encouraging news, Harvard rescinded its fellowship to Chelsea Manning (which, ironically is what Bradley Manning did to himself, if you catch my drift). But as Noah Rothman was the first to catch, Harvard didn’t rescind the invitation, just the honorific “fellow.” Apparently, Harvard’s president thought that if he buried that fact in a morass of verbiage that makes an iTunes user agreement seem riveting, no one would notice. And, if not for that meddling kid at Commentary, they would have gotten away with it.

Canine Update: All is well in doggo world, for the most part. One of the more interesting developments is that Pippa has discovered that if she beats Zoë to the spot next to me, Zoë won’t kill her. So now, when I walk toward the over-sized chair in the kitchen to work or watch TV, they race like fraternity brothers to get the shotgun position. Zoë is pissed about it, but because she’s turning into such a sweet girl, all she does is pout when she loses.

Yesterday, some dogs were frolicking in front of the house, and this enraged Zoë. I caught the end of it on video in which you can see how Pippa was just lending moral support to Zoë — the spaniel really couldn’t care less. Speaking of frolicking, here’s how I spend a big chunk of my days of late (turn up the volume).

This started as a Corner post and turned into a whole article on the ackamarackus bordering on flimflam that is the “Republicans Don’t Believe In Science” clatfart and bushwa.

Don’t forget: There’s still time to sign up for the Fourth Annual William F. Buckley Jr. Prize Dinner on October 25, 2017, at Gotham Hall in NYC. James Rosen in a Carmen Miranda outfit will emcee. We will be honoring Tom Wolfe, who will get the WFB Prize for Leadership in Political Thought. And Bruce and Suzie Kovner will be receiving the WFB Prize for Leadership in Supporting Liberty. And, since I have no role in the ceremonies, I will be happily at the bar making with the chitchat and badinage. Details here.

Oh, and if for some reason you can’t make it (Shame! Shame!), there’s the Commentary Roast a month later.

And now the other stuff.

Last week’s G-File.

Feminists find “homosocialism” in man caves.

My Monday NPR hit

Rachel Maddow’s Woodrow Wilson dishonesty

Is Hillary Clinton Cersei Lannister?

Trump doesn’t care about “Trumpism,” only “winning.”

Watch people make fun of me at the Commentary Roast.

Columbia Journalism Review asked me what to make of the conservative commentariat’s reaction to Trump’s DACA-deal talk.

And then I wrote a column about it.

And now, the weird stuff.

Debby’s Friday links

The Voynich Manuscript . . . still unsolved

Behold: The Fatberg of London

How Americans are winning the battle over the English language

African wild dogs vote by sneezing

The best protected treasure vaults

Southwest Airlines flies puppies and kittens away from hurricane

Animals in unexpected places

When America and Great Britain almost went to war over a pig

Arkansas woman uses state money to buy a dog a tuxedo

Two babies born back-to-back in the same Burger King parking lot

Chainsaw nun is the hero we need

Why we can’t stop hurricanes

Drunk bro successfully swims across Hoover Dam

Police take (a different) drunk bro home, take selfie with him to help him remember how he got there

Cassini probe ends its Saturn mission

The G-File

By Jonah Goldberg