Gore and Lieberman continue to lead the Democratic Party, ever so cautiously, to the right.

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From the time he emerged as a serious presidential aspirant in 1991, Bill Clinton consciously set himself to the task of remaking the Democratic party, cracking it loose from the ossifying ideological liberalism of FDR and LBJ in an effort to broaden its political appeal.  Clinton was a New Democrat in 1992. And notwithstanding a few major political missteps along the way, most notably a health care initiative that was too big for his own party to chew in Congress, he remains a New Democrat to the end, the first and foremost practitioner of the Third Way politics that has brought left-leaning parties back to power all over the world.

From the beginning, the politics of the Third Way has been greeted by skepticism from both left and right — as one might expect, since Third Way adherents define themselves at least in part in opposition to both left and right. Conservatives have sometimes refused to take it seriously as anything but old-style liberalism flying a false flag. Liberals have wondered whether it was anything more than a slogan providing political cover for an unwelcome lurch to the right.

Does the Third Way have content in its own right? Or is it primarily a strategy of political positioning aimed at carving out an electoral majority from the center-left to the center-right?

As Clinton’s second term comes to an end, it seems ridiculous to deny that the Third Way has real content.  Clinton has signed legislation that ended the welfare entitlement, that cut taxes, that devoted budget surpluses to paying down the national debt.  Clinton’s Democratic party is at peace, not at war, with the market economy — indeed, the party sees the market as an ally. The wonder is not that Clinton has opposed many Republican efforts to cut taxes, it’s that he has gone along with so many. If this is liberalism, it is balanced-budget, bond-market liberalism.

At the same time, it is not conservative.  Clinton has held out for as much government spending as he can get. He is adamant about maintaining (indeed, increasing) the progressivity of the tax code — and through the promotion of innovative refundable tax credits, he is quietly trying to transform the IRS into an agency not just for tax collection but for the redistribution of income.  Clinton remains a true believer in activist government.

The fact that the Third Way has real substance does not mean that it has nothing to do with political positioning. It is meant to be politically adroit and popular. But the Third Way is not merely a matter of political positioning. There are places Clinton will not go. There are lines he could cross with little public resistance but has been unwilling on principle to cross. He can support charter schools and public school choice, but not even a limited experiment in voucher programs for private schools. He wants a prescription drug plan for Medicare, but not enough to embrace the bipartisan Breaux commission’s recommendations for market-based reform. He says he wants to use the market to bolster the rate of return of Social Security, but not in the form of diverting Social Security taxes into private accounts. He will cut taxes (say) $ 300 billion over 10 years, but not $ 600 billion.

Bill Clinton is a figure of singular political instinct and skill. This in turn raises an interesting question, namely, whether the change he has wrought in the Democratic party is something permanent or merely a product of his transitory position atop it. The fact that British prime minister Tony Blair, German chancellor Gerhard Schroder, and others have found in Clinton’s success a political model they could apply in their countries establishes that the Third Way is not merely a Clintonian idiosyncrasy. But will it outlast him?

The first place to look for the answer has to be the presidential bid of Al Gore, Clinton’s designated successor. What was striking throughout the primaries was how different Gore sounded from the Clinton of 1992. Where Clinton had gone to great lengths to position himself as a different kind of Democrat from the party’s liberals — even returning to Arkansas to preside over the execution of a murderer who was mentally impaired — Gore responded to a challenge from the left in the person of Bill Bradley by moving sharply left himself. On gay rights issues, racial justice issues, women’s rights issues including abortion, and gun control, each candidate leaned all the way left. In the end, there was not much difference between the two, try as Bradley might to get out front, or at least to remind Democratic voters that Gore’s position had evolved since the time he represented a more conservative Tennessee constituency. Apart from the intermittent irritation of labor at Gore’s pro-trade record, it’s hard to think of any significant Democratic constituency that wasn’t set vibrating in harmony with Gore’s primary positions.

Even on economic issues — the principal concern of Third Way politics — Gore attacked Bradley from the left. Gore denounced Bradley’s reform proposal for a quasi-voucher system for Medicare as grossly insufficient. He said the amount of the voucher in the Bradley plan wouldn’t pay for even a minimal package of benefits. The charges left Bradley on the defensive, and his challenge to the front-runner quickly dissipated.

That in turn seemed to leave the Democratic nomination to a Gore rather more left-wing than Clinton had ever been. Perhaps the Third Way was not so resilient after all; perhaps Clinton’s revolution had degenerated into little more than a cult of personality. No; the left-wing Al Gore of the primary season disappeared as quickly as he arrived. Gore has since reemerged as a politician intent on claiming the political center. Moreover, in doing so, he has provided insight into how Third Way politics works in practice.

What’s striking is that on a number of big issues, Gore has now gone not just as far as Clinton, but farther. He has staked out positions for the general election that are actually to the right of anything Clinton embraced while twice running for office as the Third Way pioneer.

The most important of these is surely Social Security. In June, Gore announced “Social Security Plus,” the Democratic imprimatur for tax-free private investment of retirement savings, including matching funds from the government, in stock market mutual funds to build a “nest egg.” This is not, to be sure, a new idea; it’s an update of a largely forgotten 1999 Clinton proposal for “Universal Savings Accounts.” Gore is also careful to describe his proposal as a supplement to Social Security and to reassure listeners of his commitment not to change the basic characteristics of the system (including the rate of taxation that funds it). Indeed, by the time he finally unveiled his plan, its name had changed from “Social Security Plus” to “Retirement Savings Plus.” Gore has not embraced and will not embrace the diversion of 2 percent of income from Social Security taxes into private accounts, as George W. Bush proposes. But Gore’s campaign-trail support for private accounts is real, and he has accordingly taken one step farther to the right in pursuit of his Third Way than Clinton did.

Likewise, Gore has called for a tax cut of about $ 500 billion, roughly double what Clinton has been willing to accept (though still less than half of what Bush wants). And where Clinton, in the first year of the budget surplus, appeared to agree only with reluctance not to use the excess revenues from Social Security taxes to fund other government spending, Gore has been quick to propose an additional “lock box” for current and future surpluses in the Medicare account, amounting to as much as $ 300 billion over 10 years secured from “pork barrel spending and tax cuts,” in the candidate’s characteristic Third Way description.  Clinton has been vaguely in favor of paying off the national debt over time, and has boasted that the first such payments were made on his watch. Gore goes so far as to set a date for final repayment of the debt, 2012.

And then there’s religion. In May 1999, before the seriousness of the Bradley challenge became apparent and Gore lurched left to beat it back, the vice president delivered a remarkable address in praise of faith-based institutions, offering his endorsement of a role for them in the provision of social services funded by government. In doing so, he put an end to the decades-long dominance within the party of the thoroughly secular perspective of the ACLU.

Then came Joe Lieberman. Notwithstanding that Gore’s choice for vice president is an Orthodox Jew, from the moment of his selection, the Gore campaign has had something of a revivalist tone. What began as a relatively cool assessment from Gore in praise of religion, noteworthy in itself, became overt religiosity on the part of the candidates of a kind almost unimaginable in Democratic presidential politics. The sociologist James Davison Hunter has theorized that Americans are divided not so much along denominational lines as between those of “orthodox” view and those of “progressive” view. Lieberman’s obviously heartfelt and effusive thanks to the Lord — his account of how he and Gore had prayed together — placed the Democratic ticket for the first time in the orthodox camp.

Once again, there are places Gore won’t go. And they are not altogether dissimilar to the places Clinton wouldn’t go; but neither are they identical. Gore, though, seems to be willing to take one step further rightward down the Third Way path away from the left.

If Democrats, indulging their fondest hopes in 1992, foresaw a Gore presidential bid in 2000 following two successful Clinton terms, it’s hard to imagine they saw Gore as a candidate who would be running to the right of Bill Clinton. Yet he is. Was he that way from the beginning? This question is all the more interesting in the light of the selection of Lieberman. In the senator’s case, his positions on a number of issues — support for a school voucher experiment, for parental consent for federally funded abortions, for private accounts for Social Security, etc. — have been quite conspicuously to the right of Gore’s.

In the traditional manner of the vice presidential aspirant, Lieberman has been moving swiftly and cheerfully to bring himself into compliance with Gore’s policy views. But not all the movement has been in Gore’s direction. Gore was moved to say this week that he understands why parents in schools that don’t work might support vouchers. Gore’s still against them, but the newfound sympathy is itself a breakthrough. So Lieberman is not only evidence of rightward drift, but perhaps also an agent of it. (Here’s a deeply morbid question for the GOP. After two successful Third Way terms for Gore, why wouldn’t Lieberman campaign for the White House by reaching at least as far to the right as his senatorial instincts took him?)

The tension between the dynamic aspect of Third Way policy-making (that tug to the right) and its self-imposed limits (this far and no farther) is fascinating. Jonathan Chait, in a 1998 article in the New Republic, described the “conundrum” of the Third Way as follows:

The Third Way assumes a basic political symmetry — an unreconstructed left, a radical right, and a Third Way nestled in between. But when the Third Way takes power, it alters the equation. . . . This means that the Third Way no longer sits between the two poles of the political spectrum; it is the left pole. The calculus has changed, and, in order to retain the center, the Third Way must shift right again. . . . So, the Third Way has had an ironic result. It has destabilized the center, becoming an ever-shifting median between a liberalism that is moving to the right and a conservatism that is moving to the right. 

This is, perhaps, the dynamic that has produced a Gore-Lieberman ticket slightly to the right of Clinton-Gore. Gore could move left as necessary during the primary and still recover his Third Way position. If he wins the general election, the Third Way torch will have been passed successfully from its first generation to its second. Then we’ll find out if the Third Way can keep moving right — or if, instead, the absolute limits of Third Way thinking are coming into view.