Raise your hand if you remember triangulation. Now lower it again if you think I’m talking about mathematics.
No, what I’m thinking of is the technique introduced by Bill Clinton, and then enthusiastically adopted by Tony Blair, of deciding on a political posture by reference to the two extreme positions. They called it the Middle Way, or the Third Way, and for a time, it served them well.
The reason I ask is that I’ve begun to wonder if Barack Obama might be a secret triangulator. Yes, Mr No-Drama Obama, Mr Über-Cool – could he be?
Consider his position on what to do about the authorisation and use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” by the Bush administration on alleged terrorism suspects.
First, it was clear enough: “I regard what happened as illegal and immoral, but I want to look forward not back, so I am not in favour of prosecuting anyone who might have been involved.” (I paraphrase.)
Then came a wobble: “I am not in favour of prosecuting any CIA official who may have been involved in actually using the ‘enhanced’ techniques, but I leave open the question of prosecuting former administration officials who authorised their use, which is something for the attorney-general to decide.” (I paraphrase again.)
(By the way, if you’ve been wondering which officials exactly might have been involved, US Senate documents released this week suggest they include former vice-president Dick Cheney, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, then-Attorney General John Ashcroft, and White House counsel Alberto Gonzales.)
And then last night, another wobble, from the attorney-general, Eric Holder: “I will not permit the criminalisation of policy differences. However, it is my responsibility as Attorney General to enforce the law.” (A direct quote this time.)
Which leaves things unclearer than ever. So what’s going on? Are we observing the return of the triangulator? Is Mr Obama trying to find a middle way between his Democratic Party colleagues in Congress (who are themselves split on how to handle this issue), and the Republicans who are already accusing him of selling out the country’s intelligence services?
Like all Democrats, Mr Obama knows that his right-wing critics are just waiting to pounce on any suggestion that he might be “soft on national security”. But he needs to keep his colleagues on Capitol Hill happy as well, because he’s going to need them big time when it comes to voting through proposals on health care reform.
The President likes to portray himself as a uniter rather than a divider. Throughout his campaign, and since his inauguration, he has tried to emphasise what Americans agree on, not what they disagree on.
But sometimes, it looks as if his instincts don’t serve him too well. When he was engulfed in controversy over remarks by his Chicago pastor, Jeremiah Wright, he thought at first that some soft soothing words would make it all go away. They didn’t. So he had to toughen up his response and disown Mr Wright.
Similarly the row over bonuses paid to the insurance giant AIG after it had been bailed out by US tax-payers. At first he thought the bonuses weren’t a serious issue. But they were – so again, he had to toughen up his response.
Being cool is fine when everyone is happy with you being cool. But sometimes voters like to see their leaders getting tough on issues they care about. I’m not sure President Obama has quite decided yet how tough voters want him to be on “enhanced interrogation techniques”.
Nevertheless, I very much doubt that there will be any prosecutions. I also doubt that there’ll be a formal commission of inquiry, although some senior Democrats are pressing for one. On Wednesday night’s programme, Josh Gerstein of the political news website Politico told me that what the argument is really about is who will make the decision that there won’t be any prosecutions.
Try triangulating that one.