Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Was There Ever Really A Third Way?

Michael Barone, a man of the right, asks a question we on the left should be asking ourselves from a slightly different angle (my emphasis):

What happened to the "third way" center-left movement that once seemed to sweep all before it?

“Only a dozen years ago, in 1998, President Bill Clinton enjoyed 70 percent job approval. Prime Minister Tony Blair was basking in adulation in his first full year in office.

“Clinton "third way" New Democrats and Blair's "New Labor" party seemed to have a bright and long future ahead. Clinton's designated successor, Al Gore, despite some ham-handed campaigning, came out ahead in the popular vote in 2000 and lost the presidency by only some hundreds of votes in Florida. With Blair at its head, Labor won unprecedented re-election victories in 2001 and 2005.

“Now, less than a generation later, both New Democrats and New Labour seem defunct.

Both parties have moved well to the left. Barack Obama and Blair's successor, Gordon Brown, head governments that are running budget deficits of 10 percent of gross domestic product. Both are promoting higher taxes and expansion of government programs.

“The financial crisis is one reason for the large deficits. But it is undeniable that to varying extents both Obama and Brown have pursued more statist policies than their predecessors did a dozen years ago.

"And it is undeniable, too, that both are in trouble with the voters.”
Barone’s speaking as a political strategist who regards the Third Way principally as a technique for winning elections. He concludes that the Democratic and Labour Parties have shot themselves in the foot electorally by staking out statist positions that are too far to the left of the median voter. They’ve forgotten the two-pronged lesson that Clinton and Blair taught in the 1990s:  first, that in a two-party system elections can only be won by capturing the ideological center; and second, that the ideological center has moved appreciably to the right since the 1960s.

All that may be true, but it doesn’t get to the question of whether there ever was anything more to the Third Way than electoral strategizing. Clinton sold himself as a presidential candidate in 1992 as a New Democrat who recognized that traditional liberal social policy was often a grotesquely inefficient, and sometimes even a self-defeating way of promoting equality together with general prosperity. That's why, for instance, he was determined to "end welfare as we know it."  The Third Way was part of Clinton’s pitch that he was no Dukakis or Mondale still trying to expand the Great Society.   When he strayed from that message, for example by pushing HillaryCare, he got burned.

Clinton never had much political incentive while he was president to reveal whether the appearance of ideological moderation he artfully projected was merely a tactical expedient, or a genuinely new approach to liberal public policy. When he declared in a State of the Union Address that “the age of big government was over,” he was picking up the pieces of a governing coalition that had been shattered by the 1994 mid-term elections before it had been put to much use. Under the circumstances, being very clear about why the age of big government was over would have been politically imprudent. People in the political center would be more receptive to Clinton if they thought he was the guy making ideological concessions and Newt Gingrich was the ideological extremist.

Encouraging that impression, however, left Clinton exposed to charges of ideological betrayal from his left flank to which he had both a pragmatic and a principled answer. The pragmatic answer was that, having lost control of Congress, and with no prospect of putting a serviceable governing coalition back together in the foreseeable future, liberals should get used to accepting half an ideological loaf instead of the crumbs available when a Republican occupied the White House. That might have been good advice in the 1990s, but it didn’t obviously apply after 2008, when liberals thought they had an electoral mandate to pick up where they left off in the 1960s.  You can't blame them for not applying it.

Clinton’s principled answer to the charge of ideological betrayal was that not he, but the people making the charge, were the real betrayers because they insisted on promoting equality through policy approaches that we know don’t work. If liberals were really serious about promoting equal outcomes, on this view, they’d join Clinton in devising policies that are more efficient and intrude less noticeably in people’s lives than the command-and-control approaches liberals traditionally favor. If that was good advice in 1995, it’s probably still good advice now.

It’s pretty clear that, even as they try to reconcile themselves to the unpopularity of ObamaCare, Obama and most of the liberal community think that the Third Way was never more than an electoral expedient.  It may have been perfectly understandable in the political climate of the 90s, they think, but it's far too timid now that liberals have what may be their last chance of redeeming the egalitarian promises of the New Deal. Friends of equality can only hope that they're right.

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