Posted by Tod Lindberg on November 2nd, 1999
The Washington Times
Bill Clinton rightly gets credit for pioneering “New Democrat” governance and Third Way politics. He led the Democratic Party into new political territory, the land of balanced budgets and the end of the welfare entitlement, leaving behind party baggage of fiscal irresponsibility and an attachment to Great Society-style social programs. The question for Democrats is how permanent these changes in the party’s governing philosophy are.
The development of Third Way politics does indeed look like a historic shift, not least because it is global in scope. Left of center political parties have abandoned socialism in theory and in practice. They have made their peace with capitalism and the superior efficiency of markets in delivering goods and services. Even in Europe, the dream of the cradle-to-grave welfare state has given way to the urgency of labor market reform.
In doing so, these parties have made themselves electable – the proof of which is that so many now hold power. This is probably in part a product of the demise of the Soviet Union; there is reason to think voters were wary of the ability of the left parties to deal with the Soviets, and there is now no comparable need for wariness. But what has visibly changed about these parties is their embrace of the Third Way, and that seems to have made the difference with voters.
The permanence of this global change, however, will be established country by country, starting in the United States with the question of Mr. Clinton’s successor as the Democratic standard-bearer. And with all due respect to Mr. Clinton, neither Al Gore nor Bill Bradley sounds like much of a Third Way adherent, at least so far.
Mr. Gore has been moved to say that Mr. Bradley’s plan for health care is too expensive. But apart from that, the two of them seem to be vying with each other to see who can propose the most expansive view of government. Whatever Mr. Clinton meant when he famously declared, “The era of big government is over,” it is not a statement one is apt to hear from the lips of either Mr. Gore or Mr. Bradley.
There is an obvious political reason for this: Each man wants the nomination of a party whose base remains substantially to the left of the Third Way. Both candidates are pitching themselves to the left accordingly. One does not hear from either anything that would much displease labor, environmentalists, liberal black leaders, etc.
At the same time, it is clear that either man is going to want and need the center as the nominee. In this sense, Mr. Clinton’s Third Way governance, with its claim to a legacy of peace and prosperity, stands as a large res erve of political capital available for the Democratic nominee down the road. Once the nominee pockets it, no one will be able to portray him as an Old (i.e., liberal) Democrat.
But is that really true? Mr. Clinton, after all, got the nomination in 1992 not by appealing to the party’s left, but to the center. He took his New Democrat politics and policies to Democrats themselves in the party’s primaries and caucuses for their approval. He may have moved to the left upon taking office (and paid dearly for it in 1994), but his ideas-based Democratic primary campaign was precisely designed to differentiate himself from the old-style Democratic Party. He attracted support within the party on principle – and also out of the prudential calculation by some Democrats that he was the one who could dislodge the Republicans from the White House. (If this reminds anyone of George W. Bush and the Republicans this year, it’s no accident.)
What Mr. Clinton did in 1992 was of a very different order of magnitude from Al Gore’s declaration that Bill Bradley’s health plan is too expensive. It is quite possible that by running to the left, Mr. Gore and Mr. Bradley will lose the Third Way, New Democrat connection and become vulnerable to a straightforward attack on their liberal leanings. In any case, it is hardly self-evident that they are immune from such attack because of Mr. Clinton’s hard work. Yet that seems to be a core assumption, especially of Mr. Gore’s campaign.
The real test of the Third Way lies not in the success of its first generation of leaders, but in the success of a second generation.