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Jewish World ReviewOct. 8, 1998 /18 Tishrei, 5759

Clarence Page

Clarence Page How Center-Left liberals got their groove back

WASHINGTON One of the biggest challenges posed by the "Third Way" politics that voters have swept into power in the United States, then Britain and now Germany it is the inability of anyone to precisely define what it is.

No one required Bill Clinton to describe the cost of what he was offering when he offered us the "New Democrats" in 1992 and what consultant Dick Morris called "triangulation" in 1996.

Nor did anyone pin down Tony Blair very much on whose government services would be pruned when he offered "New Labor" in 1997.

Most recently, Gerhard Schroeder's avoidance of a price tag for his "new middle" or "new center" did nothing to prevent his defeat of Helmut Kohl to become the new chancellor of Germany.

Blair took a stab at defining the "Third Way," as he calls this new center-left political trend, in a Sept. 27 Washington Post essay. It is, he wrote, an alternative to "an old left preoccupied by state control, high taxation and producers' interests and a new laissez-faire right championing narrow individualism and a belief that free markets are the answer to every problem."

Translation: "The Third Way is whatever it takes for us to win."

With that, the leader of "New Labor" loosely echoed Clinton and Schroeder. There is much that Clinton, Blair and Schroeder have in common. Each is too young to remember World War II. Each unseated a conservative regime that had outlived its popularity amid economic strife. Each borrowed popular ideas from both ends of the political spectrum and repackaged their left-leaning positions with the useful adjective "New."

But, when you look more closely at today's much-touted "Third Way" leaders, the more you see the old center-left liberalism wrapped in a new package. That's not necessarily a bad thing. It may simply show the lasting appeal the old liberalism still holds, even as voters express strong attraction for the new conservatism.

In that way, the new "Third Way" leaders are doing what savvy politicians always do. They are building a coalition between their political base and the vast motherlode of voters who wobble around in the moderate middle.

As party loyalties have grown weak in modern industrial democracies, voters increasingly view themselves as smart, independent shoppers, picking and choosing from the shelves of the political bazaar. Ideas must be attractively packaged to catch their eye.

They must offer maximum benefit at minimum cost.

Richard Nixon figured that out in 1968 when he recovered himself and his party from Barry Goldwater's landslide defeat. He repackaged himself as the "New Nixon," a "peace" candidate who wanted to help blacks and the poor get "a piece of the action." Ronald Reagan completed the conservative comeback in 1980 by putting a happy face on the movement and enlisting "Reagan Democrats," mostly blue-collar whites who felt forgotten by what some called "the party of Jesse Jackson," that seemed increasingly interested in redistributing income to the poor.

Similarly, Clinton brought the Democrats back after 12 years of defeat by persuading the party's Jackson wing to be patient. Then Clinton appealed to "the forgotten middle class" with "new centrist" promises of smaller government, job creation, welfare reform, crime-fighting and budget balancing, ideas borrowed from the right.

Republicans get really steamed at Clinton for "stealing" their ideas. But good political ideas are meant to be stolen. Parties commit a bigger sin when they take their best messages for granted.

For example, if you ask a liberal if they support "self-help," "family values" or "personal responsibility," they may typically respond, as I have heard, "Sure, who doesn't endorse self-help, family values or personal responsibility? It almost goes without saying." Almost, but not quite. When Walter Mondale boldly presumed the only practical answer to the growing deficit in 1984 was new taxes and Michael Dukakis failed to see the resonance of the crime issue as anything but a racial code word in 1988, they put the nails in the coffin of old Democratic party presumptions and required a "New Democratic" movement to save the party from extinction.

At the same time, Republican members of Congress are still learning the hard way not to presume voters know they don't really want to destroy Social Security or other safety-net programs, as Goldwater did.

The victories of the "Bill Clintons" of Britain, Germany and America show neither political extreme has a monopoly on good ideas. A robust nation requires a free market for growth and job creation, but we also need a strong government for security, stability and a social safety net.

If the so-called "Third Way" fails to provide a good balance of both, a Fourth, Fifth or Sixth Way will come along to replace it. That's democracy. It's often messy, but it works.


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©1998, Tribune Media Services.