Michael Barone asks: “What happened to the ‘third way’ center-left movement that once seemed to sweep all before it?” He’s referring to a concept of the 1990s that purported to stand for new policies that eschewed the traditional big government dogma of the left and the anti-big government dogma of conservatives. Bill Clinton and Tony Blair both claimed to favor such policies and seemed to benefit a great deal politically as a result.
That success notwithstanding, the successors of Clinton and Blair have moved their parties decisively to the left. And, as Barone points out, “they’re not doing as well as their ‘third way’ predecessors.”
In my view, the explanation for the abandonment of “third wayism” by the Democratic party lies in the fact that the concept was largely a phony one — i.e., a means of getting back into the political game, rather than a genuinely held world view. As I put it years ago, “third wayism seemed like little more than traditional leftism coupled with an occasional nod in the direction of protecting national security and the realization that, if the power of government were to be increased, it would have to been done more subtly than before so as to circumvent popular opposition.”
This approach looked like a good bet for liberals in the early 1990s, given the battering they had taken from the revitalized conservatism of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. But by the first years of the 21st century, third wayism seemed to be selling the core liberalism of most Democrats short. In the U.S., the growing unpopularity of George W. Bush signaled to liberals that they could win elections with somewhat less trimming of their leftism. And two electoral victories convinced them — foolishly, I think — that they no longer needed to trim much at all.
Ironically, George W. Bush had, meanwhile, launched a third way movement of his own. He called it compassionate conservatism. Initially, I thought it was as phony as the Democrats’ version — a concept formulated to provide electoral appeal in the face of the Clinton administration’s popularity. Sadly, I was mistaken; Bush actually meant what he said.
But the unpopularity of the Bush administration and the defeat of John McCain — another genuine third wayer — undermined any temptation conservatives might otherwise have felt to continue the project. And in the past two years, such temptation has further been undermined by the sense that the Democrats, having overreached, can be defeated without much trimming of traditional conservative positions.
It would probably take a long stint in the wilderness for either party in this country to look for third way.
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