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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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.