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President Clinton may be imperiled, but Clintonism appears to be thriving around the world. On Sept. 27, Helmut Kohl became the first chancellor in the history of the Federal Republic to be defeated for re-election, as Germany turned to the left. And Social Democrat Gerhard Schroeder became the latest national leader in the Clinton mold.
There are now center-left governments in all the major Western democracies: Clinton in the United States, Schroeder in Germany, Tony Blair in Great Britain, Jean Chretien in Canada, Lionel Jospin in France and Romano Prodi in Italy. Call it ”the Clinton International.”
Schroeder may be 54 years old, but he claims to be a politician of the new generation. He had no direct experience of the Third Reich or World War II. Instead, his formative political experiences were the left-wing protests of the 1960s. Sound familiar? Schroeder sold a new pragmatism–he called it ”the new center.” He reassured business and promised to cut taxes and reform welfare. Sound familiar?
Schroeder’s big campaign theme was ”modernization.” He claimed to be the man who could lead Germany into the new global economy and depicted Kohl as a man of the past. Don’t stop thinking about tomorrow, anyone? Sounds pretty vague. But it worked–here and there.
Commentators complained that Schroeder ran a highly personalized campaign, with no policy details or ideological profundities. The experience was highly embarrassing for many old-line Social Democrats. Was this the party of Karl Marx? Not any more. But then, Marx knew something about making revolutions but not much about getting elected.
Germany has had very few changes of government since World War II. Germans, after their tumultuous experiences of this century, have developed a fetish for stability. Which is, in effect, what Schroeder’s Social Democrats offered after the immensely disruptive experience of post-Cold War reunification. Particularly in a country with 10.6 percent unemployment.
Germans found the slow economic growth and high unemployment under the conservatives deeply unsettling. Voter support for Kohl’s Christian Democratic Party simply collapsed, particularly in the east. In fact, Kohl lost his own seat.
The good news is that the radical-right parties, with their racist, anti-foreign appeal, did not do well. The bad news is, the former Communists got about 20 percent of the vote in the old East Germany–where unemployment is nearly 20 percent–and entered the federal parliament for the first time.
Schroeder has not invited them to join the government, however. Instead, he will govern in coalition with the Green Party, a radical environmental party that grew out of the 1960s. Greens have occasionally expressed some scary foreign policy views, such as pulling Germany out of NATO. Kohl tried to frighten voters with the prospect of a ”Red-Green” coalition (Social Democrats and Greens). But the voters weren’t scared. The Cold War is over.
Parties of the Left have come to power in all the major Western democracies by moving to the center and promising not to expand big government. They convinced voters it was ”safe” to vote for the Left.
In effect, they paid tribute to the success of the Right. Remember, the Left had been out of power for a long time–18 years in Britain, 16 years in Germany, 12 years in America. Sooner or later, a losing party gets the message: This isn’t working. The Left had to try something else.
What it tried was moderation. If conservatives had been utterly discredited, the Left would have been able to offer more- fundamental change. In the 1970s, after the Democrats in America and the British Labor Party were discredited, conservatives led by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher offered radical changes. Those changes are now widely accepted. So Bill Clinton and Tony Blair–and now Gerhard Schroeder–had to promise not to undo what the conservatives did. They offered change, but not too much change. And it worked.
Moving to the center is a standard electoral tactic when a party becomes desperate. Republicans did it with Dwight Eisenhower in 1952 after 20 years in the wilderness. These days, however, it’s gotten dressed up as a new ideology: ”the Third Way,” an alternative to welfare-state socialism and laissez- faire capitalism. Triangulation writ large.
Does the Third Way represent a program, or is it simply an electoral strategy? Actually, there are some core ideas behind it: globalization, public investment and tolerance. Those ideas are highly attractive to business and to the educated upper middle class. They are suspect to certain interests on the Left– particularly labor, which has problems with leaders such as Clinton, Blair and Schroeder.
The fact is, the new Clintonians did not steal those ideas from the Right. Conservatives ceded them by moving too far to the right. The forces of protectionism, nativism, religious fundamentalism and anti-statism have gained influence over the Right: anti-European Tories in Britain, anti-foreign radicals in Germany and France, Pat Buchanan and the Religious Right in the United States, plus a Republican Congress that threatened the safety net and shut down the federal government. The new, moderate Left is thriving because it has learned from the successes of the Right. And from the Right’s mistakes as well.
William Schneider is a resident fellow at AEI.
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