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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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.

Tod Lindberg is editor of Policy Review.