The decision by the Obama administration to approve new offshore oil drilling for the first time in decades accomplished something rare in a Washington where large presidential actions are almost always preceded by ground-softening leaks or background press previews: It surprised the hell out of almost everyone. From Republicans, the sense of shock yielded something even rarer: Instead of lockstep rejectionism, there were mutterings of tentative approval (“a good first step,” said Lindsey Graham) and even bellows of triumphalism (“Drill, baby, drill,” tweeted Sarah Palin—although hours later, she reverted to form, tweeting “Stall, Baby, Stall”) mixed in among the catcalls (by not allowing drilling anytime, anywhere, the administration “continues to defy the will of the American people,” huffed John Boehner).
The reaction on the other side of the aisle was all over the map, too, with moderate Democrats praising the move, while the left decried it as a betrayal. From green groups, the complaints were mainly on policy grounds: that the risks to the environment far outweigh the potential gains from the relatively small amounts of oil that might be extracted. But equally harsh was the critique of the politics behind the decision among progressives, who saw in Team Obama’s split-the-difference approach yet another bid for bi-partisanship that would prove both pointless and futile. “Wonder why it took White House so long to try this preemptive capitulation strategy?” tweeted influential blogger Matt Yglesias, who later added, sarcastically, “Thanks to this drilling move, GOP will be sure not to hit Obama when gas prices spike over the summer.”
Animating the left’s criticism of the administration’s tack is a reading of the epochal battle over health-care reform: that Obama and his people wasted many months chasing a handful of Republican votes that were never secured; and that what the health-care battle proved was that a pure party-line strategy can work, either by leading to legislation or by allowing Democrats to hammer Republicans for their obstructionism.
The White House sees things differently, obviously, and it may be right. For a start, the administration perceives no political mileage in assailing Republicans for standing in the way of energy reform, especially with more than 60 percent of the electorate telling pollsters they favor more offshore drilling.
And, in a Senate where Democrats hold 59 seats and even fewer reliable votes on energy reform, the only means to enacting a new law is by attaining the cooperation of a handful of Republicans. The key GOP player is Graham, who reportedly reckons that refusing to loosen restrictions on drilling means no bill, no way, no how—but that doing the opposite would put a half-dozen Republicans in play.
Moreover, the White House’s interpretation of the health-care battle differs from that of the left in another crucial regard. For many months, the public option was the focus of (apparently) intense passion and (apparently) non-negotiable demands among progressives. But in the end, by and large, they were willing to sacrifice that goal for a greater one: the coverage of 32 million uninsured Americans. When it comes to energy, the administration is betting that a similar dynamic will play out: that the left will swallow hard and accept some new drilling as the price for finally putting a price on carbon.
This is, of course, precisely the kind of calculation that many progressives rail against as triangulation. And they’re not wrong. But triangulation, used sparingly and in the service of big goals, can have its uses. And more to the point, eschewing it at all times can be suicidal—a point made pithily the other day by Bill Clinton’s former pollster, Stan Greenberg. “Sometimes you just got to go for those things,” Greenberg said at a recent breakfast. “Karl Rove had a base strategy, okay? And he was very, very consistent. And he destroyed the Republican Party.”