Third Way Tangibles

Yes indeed, as Wim Kok, the prime minister of the Netherlands, told a Democratic Leadership Council symposium last Sunday, "the Third Way is a two-way street," - and in more ways than one. And, yes, the whole idea of the "Third Way," as described at the DLC meeting by four European prime ministers and President Clinton, is based on a gross caricature of harsh conservatism. And it's true that elected Democrats in America who profess to be New Democrats favoring the "Third Way" include (1) those who are fibbing, (2) those who believe in Thirdism but are not able or ready to fight for it, and (3) too few believers and fighters.

Let me finish my list of negatives, because - believe it or not - this ends up as a positive assessment. It is true that when five elected wonky leaders of common political persuasion are mixed with a large battery of television cameras, there will be repetitious self-congratulatory, self-aggrandizing bloviation - yada, yada, empowerment, subsidiarity, the social contract, yada, yada, community, personal responsibility, information age, markets, globalization, yada, yada. It is true there was a partisan dimension to the long seminar purportedly about the changes in political thought in the democratic world. The leaders managed not to mention the two magic words that did so much to set the change into motion: "Reagan" and "Thatcher."

Still, let it be said, there was a heartening note of solid sanity to the gathering. Remember just who the players represent and who they once were. Britain's Prime Minister Tony Blair leads the Labor Party, which, as he noted, was until only recently perceived as "favoring thugs over the old ladies they beat up." Germany's Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder is a former radical Marxist who governs now only because he has formed a coalition with a sometimes loony German Green party. Massimo D'Alema, prime minister of Italy, was a communist in the old days before he put together the new "Olive Tree Coalition."

Their parties are still members of a relic called "The Socialist International," and their parties were often quick in denouncing America while counting on American military might to defend them from the Soviet threat during the Cold War.

Now, in an obfuscating minuet, these political men are saying that they, and their parties, were, uh, wrong. After all, the call for a Third Way did not originate with conservatives. The conservatives in the 1980s were saying theirs was "the party of ideas," and they were winning elections talking about free markets, privatization and deregulation while getting tough on crime, welfare and the Soviets.

It was the parties of the left that came out for another way, a Third Way, because (to their credit) they realized that their way wasn't working - not their top-down centralized governments, not their tax-and-spend economics, not their obeisance to union political power, not their protectionist trade policies, not their permissive social policies, not their Nervous Nellie fear that force in the international arena is most always out of bounds.

Now, here they were, in America for the 50th anniversary of NATO, meeting under the auspices of the Democratic Leadership Council, the premier Third Way spokesparty. And they preached that globalization can be a tool for prosperity. Mr. Schroeder called for more flexibility of markets, including labor markets, not the words expected to come from a former radical Marxist. (The French were not at the seminar, but their government of the left is privatizing government companies faster than the conservatives did.) And they all bought Mr. Kok's notion of the two-way Third Way: Recipients of the fruits of the social contract must act with personal responsibility and diligence, or get off the government teat. (All this, of course, with a social democratic human face.)

Now, skeptics may ask whether these leaders will have the political courage to live up to such thoughts when faced with harsh bluster from their leftist constituencies. So far, not bad. Mr. Blair particularly has stared down the old left. Former speechwriters like me believe rhetoric often yields reality, particularly so in the present circumstance where the leaders of the parties of the left have finally mastered no-free-lunch arithmetic.

Facing reality domestically has a great bonus: It helps face other realities. Mr. Blair said the NATO meeting in Washington, with 19 member nations and 23 other nations who were present as "Partners for Peace," would prove to be a "historic moment." I believe it. Totalitarian governments, like Slobodan Milosevic's, often believe the democracies are soft and soggy at the center and won't face up to thuggery.

Wrong. Democracies may be slow to change domestically. They may be slow to act violently or collectively. But Mr. Milosevic, in the ruins of his country, will have time to reconsider what happens when the good guys get good and mad.

Ben Wattenberg is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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