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Jewish World Review June 26, 2002 / 16 Tamuz, 5762

Michael Barone

Michael Barone
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Rightward march?



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Not so long ago, in 1999 and 2000, Bill Clinton was hosting conferences of "third way" center-left politicians, including the heads of government of the United States, Britain, the Netherlands, France, Germany, and Italy. Today only one, Tony Blair, is still securely in power; another, Gerhard Schröder of Germany, is trailing in polls in the run-up to the September election; all the rest are out of office, replaced by parties of the right.

The right has also recently ousted the center-left in Denmark, Sweden, Portugal, and Austria, and conservative governments were handsomely re-elected in Spain and Australia. At one moment, the "third way" seemed to be sweeping all before it with a Goldilocks formula of not too much government and not too much free market; now it seems to be losing everywhere. Are we seeing a worldwide trend to the right?

Well, not quite worldwide: Left parties recently won in Hungary and the Czech Republic, and-despite George W. Bush's high poll numbers-Republicans have not jumped far ahead of Democrats in U.S. polls. Still, the unsuccess of the center-left may have some relevance for us.

High crimes. The success of the right has often been attributed to the crime and immigration issues; center-left governments (except for Blair's) have been wary of political- ly incorrect tough-on-crime and anti-immigration policies, while right parties have not been so shy. American journalists, ever on the lookout for a revival of the Nazism and fascism that have not ruled Europe in 57 years, have portrayed the right parties' approach as authoritarian and bigoted, which is inaccurate except in the cases of fringe politicians like France's Jean-Marie Le Pen (interestingly, journalists never seem disturbed about the return to power of the Communists, who ruled much of Europe just 13 years ago).

Crime is a legitimate issue in a Europe where crime rates are now much higher than in the United States; on immigration, politicians like Silvio Berlusconi in Italy and the late Pim Fortuyn in the Netherlands have called for assimilation of immigrants as well as curbs on new entrants, vital in a Europe where many more immigrants than here are Muslims, many of whom reject the tolerance and openness of Western societies. Crime and immigration are not such important issues in the United States, where Bill Clinton neutralized the Republicans on crime and where George W. Bush's attempt to get regularized status for greater numbers of Latino immigrants has more Democratic than Republican supporters in Congress.

More relevant is the tendency of center-left parties to move left in the absence of a strong leader determined to stay close to the center. After all, most center-left legislators prefer the left to the center. When the party is seen to be more left than center, it suffers at the polls. France was a spectacular example, where Lionel Jospin insisted he was a socialist and where so many left voters supported Trotskyite and other splinter-left candidates that Jospin lost a spot in the runoff to Le Pen. Other center-leftists allowed the size of government to creep up and refused to address the ballooning cost of pension systems.

It's not clear whether America's Democrats are getting that message. Al Gore ran as the tribune of "the people versus the powerful" in 2000 and failed to win; some "new Democrats" argue convincingly that he would have run better as the candidate of the "new economy." Congressional Democrats champion expensive programs like prescription drugs for the elderly, which test well on isolated poll questions but have not yet produced a spike in the Democratic vote. Fewer and fewer Democrats support free-trade measures, as Bill Clinton did in the mid-1990s. In the 1990s Clinton toyed with and Democrats like Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Bob Kerrey supported individual investment accounts in Social Security; now almost all elected Democrats pledge to keep forever the current system, which young voters increasingly believe will not deliver promised benefits in their lifetimes.

The fate of the center-left abroad suggests that these are not winning stands. Few voters today feel that they are weak creatures at the mercy of the wealthy; more feel capable of making their way ahead in an economy that surges unless the state becomes too large. Just as Americans in the 1950s and 1960s still lived in Franklin Roosevelt's country, so today we still live in Ronald Reagan's. Democrats won 48 percent in the 2000 presidential and House elections because many high-income voters chose them because of cultural issues; that vote may fall away if Democrats move further toward the big-government left.

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JWR contributor Michael Barone is a columnist at U.S. News & World Report and the author of, most recently, "The New Americans." He also edits the biennial "Almanac of American Politics". Send your comments to him by clicking here.

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©2002, Michael Barone