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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Why Chris Bowers Should Fraternize With Third Way

Yesterday Chris Bowers of MyDD did a long, interesting post about the Third Way organization, and wondered aloud why he should treat as comrades-in-arms people whose name, he suspects, represents a commitment to extinguish his and his friends’ influence over Democratic politics.Here’s the key section:

To be perfectly blunt, why would I want to speak to a group that seems to have been created for the purpose of reducing the influence over public policy of those with whom I share like-minded legislative ideals? Even their very name directly implies that I am wrong when it comes to public policy, and must be stopped, as it seems to me that I may very well be one of the two “ways” from which they are overtly, and equally, distancing themselves. However, at the same time, all of their members seem to be Democrats, and the group self-identifies as “progressive.” What’s going on here?

Now the Third Way folks are perfectly capable of speaking for themselves, and I in no way represent them. But I do know a fair amount about the historical meaning of “the Third Way,” and can answer at least parts of Chris’ basic question.First of all, the term “Third Way,” used most often in the U.S. and in the U.K. to describe the New Democrat movement associated with Bill Clinton, and the New Labour movement associated with Tony Blair, referred not to some middle-point between Left and Right, but to a modernizing and self-consciously progressive effort to create a new Left capable of competing with the New Right of the U.S. conservative movement and of the British neo-liberal ascendancy of the early 1990s. In the U.S., the Third Way was aimed at transcending not the Left per se, but the paleo-liberals of the Democratic establishment of the 1970s and 1980s, who were temperamentally reactionary in that their sole purpose in political life seemed to be the preservation of every legislative and bureaucratic detail of the New Deal/Great Society accomplishment of the distant past, regardless of changing times or perverse outcomes.What really started the “Third Way” movement in the U.S., and led immediately to the creation of the DLC, was Gary Hart’s 1984 presidential campaign, which was a direct challenge to “the groups,” the vast coalition of single-issue advocacy organizations united behind the candidacy of Walter Mondale. “The groups” were focused almost exclusively on taking the party and the country back to the pre-Reagan 1970s; the proto-Third Wayers thought that progressives needed to stand for something, well, progressive, even if the media insisted on calling any alternative to the prevailing Democratic orthodoxy “moderate” or “centrist” or “neoliberal” or even “conservative” (and yes, some advocates of the alternative went by each of these monnikers, along with just plain “liberal”). Mondale’s disastrous general election defeat gave the new movement a lot of momentum.In 1988, Dukakis basically straddled the lines of division in the Democratic Party, but did, it is sometimes forgotten, perform a lot better than Mondale. And in 1992, Clinton campaigned from beginning to end as a “different kind of Democrat,” without notably sacrificing any basic progressive principles or for that matter, progressive support.Throughout his presidency, when Clinton talked about “the Third Way,” he invariably meant it not as a compromise between Left and Right, but as a pursuit of progressive values and goals focused on legitimate issues often raised by conservatives (e.g., welfare reform or crime reduction), and sometimes using nontraditional means (e.g., markets or state-based initiatives). Just to set one chesnut aside, Clinton (and for that matter, the DLC) never embraced the idea of “triangulation,” a deliberate effort to marginalize or even campaign against those in the party (again, mainly the “paleoliberals”) who differed from him on policy grounds. That term was the construct of one man, Dick Morris, who had a much-exaggerated effect on one relatively short phase of Clinton’s 1996 re-election campaign. And even Morris defined “triangulation” as developing progressive approaches to issues monopolized by conservatives.In Britain, the Third Way referred to the Labour Party’s abandonment of some of the shibboleths of the Labour Party past–such as a commitment to nationalization of much of industry–along with a more immediately relevant agenda that dealt with post-industrial social issues in a progressive way, and, emulating Clinton, with progressive approaches to “conservative” issues like crime.While the “Third Way” monniker was very controversial outside the U.S. and U.K., it came to be used by many observers as a shorthand for the center-left revival of the mid-to-late 1990s, which in country after country involved a self-conscious revision–not abandonment–of the social democratic orthodoxy of the Left in much of the twentieth century. And despite the electoral reverses of the Left in the current decade, and the divisions, at least in the U.S. and Europe, created by differences of opinion about how to deal with the corrupto-Right of the Bush administration and its overseas allies–much of the Third Way reform effort has been internalized by the Left.So I would say to Chris: the term Third Way is not aimed at marginalizing you or what you consider to be the contemporary Left. Yes, it does represent the belief that the progressive reform effort of the 1990s is still alive and is still needed. But its main enemy continues to be the Right, and its main goal remains the conversion of progressives to a point of view that transcends base-tending, preservation of old government programs, and reflexive opposition to progressive approaches to “conservative issues.” Like that or not, it’s a legitimate exercise that cannot be rejected out of hand as somehow apostate. Moreover, genuine Third Wayers, including the organization that has chosen to take that name, are generally open to empirical discussion of the value of their political analysis and policy ideas, and don’t get into silly attacks on “liberals” or “the Left.” If they basically live up to that standard of intra-party comity and rational discussion, sure, Chris, you should at least talk to them, and compare notes. You should assume you are on the same side, until convinced otherwise.

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