The Magazine

Yes, There Is a Third Way

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

Aug 21, 2000, Vol. 5, No. 46 • By TOD LINDBERG
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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?