This month, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani released ads on immigration. While the ads have attracted attention because they evidence a brewing war between the two frontrunners, the real story is that both also show a trend towards Republicans adopting a new strategy of "triangulation."
Whereas Bill Clinton's triangulation, debuted during the 1992 presidential campaign, entailed distinguishing himself from both the policies of the left and the right, this new triangulation involves distinguishing the Republican candidates from Bushism (different to conservatism) and traditional Democratic liberalism, simultaneously, with a view to winning the Republican primary and the general election without much change of tack.
In Romney's ad, he states that he did not "wait on Washington" to act, and that "Legal immigration is great." But illegal immigration, that we've got to end. And amnesty is not the way to do it." In his, Giuliani complains of being "frustrated" by inaction on illegal immigration, and points to increased border security - and not comprehensive immigration reform-- as the solution.
Both ads appeal to the anti-amnesty base of the Republican Party. But they also appeal to the 71 percent of adults surveyed by Rasmussen this month who feel that the federal government does too little to secure the border and reduce illegal immigration—and that legislation moved by Democrats would do nothing about the problem (according to Rasmussen, only 16 percent felt it would) and that President Bush has been bad on the issue (earlier this year, 60 percent in a CBS/New York Times poll agreed).
Triangulation is evident in other areas, too. In the recent ABC News Republican debate in Iowa, Romney commented that he was "not a carbon copy of President Bush," following up with a comment that Bush and Vice President Cheney "make mistakes, but they have kept us safe these last six years." It was a Clintonesque moment.
In the same debate, Giuliani criticized the administration for its naïveté in pushing elections in Iraq as a seeming cure-all, stipulating that a "bedrock for democracy" comprising rule of law and respect for human rights was a prerequisite to democratization. It was a smack to neoconservatism.
Both comments showed a willingness to criticize Bush—which is significant—though, if this is the extent of it, it feels a tad minimal.
Romney and Giuliani are both happy to beat up hard on Democrats, as anyone running in a Republican primary would be. Giuliani persistently complains of their inability to say the words "Islamic terrorism."
Romney has bashed Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-NY, and Sen. Barack Obama, D-IL, for their stances in relation to warrantless surveillance. Both candidates complain of Democrats' interest in socialized medicine, and tax hikes.
Of course, the bashing makes good political sense. According to an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll from late July, just 21 percent of voters think that Democrats would do a better job than Republicans in relation to homeland security.
An earlier CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll showed that 57 percent favored making the Bush tax cuts permanent. Harris Interactive/Wall Street Journal polling also shows that just 26 percent of the population favors paying more taxes to cover more people via Medicaid or Medicare.
Still, according to the latest Gallup poll, just 32 percent of Americans approve of the job Bush is doing. Within the Republican Party, of course, that figure is higher-- Gallup puts Bush's approval rating among Republicans at 69 percent-- but that is hardly impressive, either.
Bush is not popular with his own base on several key issues. Immigration is obviously one, but according to a recent survey of Republicans conducted by Fabrizio McLaughlin & Associates, there are others, too—including, notably, fiscal items.
Just 16 percent of the party, overall, consider themselves Bush Republicans, as opposed to Reagan Republicans, and within the two most fiscally conservative groups, that number drops to just 4 percent and 9 percent-- weak numbers indeed.
It begs the question: with Bush in the bad books of many of his own on key issues of concern to active Republicans who vote in primaries, and with so few voters, overall, giving him a thumbs-up, shouldn't Romney and Giuliani feel free to blast away, and even out their efforts at triangulation?
With the unfavorability ratings of Mrs. Clinton, the Democratic frontrunner, on the decline, working to distinguish themselves from Bush looks like a smart strategy for Romney and Giuliani. The question is, will they pursue it?