Triangulating with 'Newt' Rumsfeld
Jude Wanniski
May 9, 2001


Back when Newt Gingrich was riding high as Speaker of the House, I warned that he was in danger of moving so far to the right edge that he would fall off the cliff. He was being outplayed by the man President Bill Clinton brought in to help save his administration, after the electorate punished him in November 1994 by giving the Congress to the GOP. Dick Morris came up with the idea of “triangulating,” which meant having Clinton and the Democrats move to their right, but not as far as Newt was taking the Republicans. The example I used that caught the spirit of the maneuver was the peanut butter and jelly sandwich in the federal school lunch program. If Newt wanted to save money by eliminating the sandwich, Morris would advise the President to cut the jelly but leave the peanut butter. The President would be frugal, but also compassionate. Newt would be a right-wing nut. As Newt moved further right on fiscal issues, finally backing a constitutional amendment to balance the budget that was not part of his original “Contract With America” mandate, he went over the edge. The GOP lost House seats in 1996 and Clinton easily won re-election against Bob Dole. Newt never recovered, but the electorate last year decided to give the Republican Party the barest of margins in their first unified government in 50 years, to see how it would handle itself. If it does well, it would be rewarded with greater margins in 2002 and a Bush second term in 2004. If it doesn’t, we will be back to divided government.

The threat to the GOP and to President George W. Bush -- who has decided he will not be pushed over a right-wing cliff on domestic policy by being as compassionate as the Democrats -- is foreign policy. And this threat is coming in a big way from his Secretary of Defense, Don Rumsfeld, who seems determined to march us off to war with any country, large or small, which has the temerity to not do as it is told. Like Gingrich, Rumsfeld is a normally sensible man, but is in the grip of a claque of right-wing intellectuals who believe the United States has earned the right to rule the world without backtalk from anyone. They include Rumsfeld’s deputy at the Pentagon, Paul Wolfowitz, who is the highest ranking “global hegemonist” in the Bush administration. Vice President Dick Cheney, for whom Wolfowitz worked when he was Defense Secretary in the earlier Bush administration, is not a “global hegemonist” although they work at getting his support in opposition to Secretary of State Colin Powell, who prefers diplomacy to force. They most openly are supported by the editors of The Weekly Standard, the WSJournal editorial page, plus William Safire of the NYTimes. They believe we have a moral imperative to rule the world, with an iron fist, no-fly zones for the bad guys, open skies for our spy planes, shielded from harm by imperial legions, the best technology that money can buy, a national missile-defense system, and a bottomless source of wealth provided by the national Treasury.

It was back in those early Gingrich years that I began writing of the GOP as the “Daddy Party” and the Democrats as the “Mommy Party,” with one the Warrior and risk-taker devoted to eliminating external threats and expanding the nation’s wealth, the other the Guardian of internal security, risk-averse, committed to an equal sharing of the national wealth. There had to be a balance between the two for the yin and yang of the national family to be in harmony. If that did not exist, in a reductio ad absurdum a Daddy Party would move ever rightward until it became the equivalent of Nazi Germany and an unchecked Mommy Party would move left until it became the equivalent of Maoist China. Our Founding Fathers drafted the Constitution with a mechanism of checks and balances that would work to drive public policy toward a golden mean. Newt Gingrich felt its sting. It may be that Rumsfeld will feel it too. The United Nations vote to kick the United States off its Human Rights Commission is being played by the GOP right as anger for Bush not supporting “global warming” or Uncle Sam not paying its dues, etc. But the real reason is that the world at large is trying to send President Bush a message, that it will make life as difficult as it can for us if we continue to play the world bully, “Uncle Bully,” as I wrote on our website today. I’d thought Rumsfeld, whom I have known for 35 years, would be wiser than Newt, but on "Meet the Press" last Sunday I could see he was not. When Tim Russert asked him if he were not concerned that China might react to a U.S. missile-defense shield with a build-up of its own, Rumsfeld said flatly he did not care, that China was going to build whatever we do. There is not a sliver of diplomacy in that answer. On page one of this morning’s Times, we find a senior unnamed Pentagon official, probably Wolfowitz, arguing that the United States might decide to end the practice of arms-control treaties, because they inhibit our freedom of action!!

The administration’s embarrassment last week was over the Pentagon announcement that it was suspending all military-to-military contact with the People’s Liberation Army of China. When the White House saw that, Rumsfeld had to insist he had been misinterpreted by an aide, Chris Williams, who is on the Wolfowitz team. Like arms control negotiations, U.S. military contact with China limits the freedom of the team to propagandize on the growing military might and imminent threat from Beijing. If our generals meet with their generals, both sides will be assured the threats are far lower than the propaganda insists they are.

Rumsfeld’s friends could help by having a heart-to-heart talk with him, but more likely he will have to face criticisms from those few conservative opinion leaders who are wary about all this unilateralism. It’s not easy, as I found when Gingrich would no longer talk to me after I wrote a client letter, July 12, 1995, “Newt in the China Shop.” He let his ego, “ballooned to new highs on his book tour,” lead him into a grand pronouncement that we should recognize Taiwan as an independent nation-state, and that it should be our objective to “undermine” China’s government. He quickly retracted the comment when he was reminded he was then, as Speaker, a head of government himself, “not a sassy backbencher.” At the time, the chief influence on Newt’s thinking on foreign policy was that of Wolfowitz and his mentor, Richard Perle, a Washington lobbyist who also worked for Cheney at the Pentagon, now making a handsome living while pulling strings inside the Pentagon. The 1995 client letter is a reminder that the U.S. relationship with China was at a zenith early that year, practically a strategic partnership. As I wrote then: “It is not China that is responsible for the steady unraveling of the relationship, but the leadership vacuum in Washington. With an inattentive President in the White House, a weak Secretary of State who is doing nothing more than minding the store, and a Republican Congress turned completely inward, the old Cold Warriors are in control.” Notice how quiet the Democrats have been lately, simply raising small questions about what President Bush and his Defense Chief are up to, and what it will cost, not only in treasure, but in global peace. They are waiting for the President to further commit himself. Then they will triangulate.