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Left parties are in trouble in the Anglosphere. Here in America Democrats are doing worse in the polls than at any time in the last 50 years. In Britain the Labor party is on the brink of finishing third, behind both Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, in the election next Thursday.
All of which raises the question: What happened to the “third way” center-left movement that once seemed to sweep all before it?
Only a dozen years ago, in 1998, President Clinton enjoyed 70 percent job approval. Prime Minister Tony Blair was basking in adulation in his first full year in office.
Clinton’s “third way” New Democrats and Blair’s “New Labor” party seemed to have a bright and long future ahead. Clinton’s designated successor Al Gore, despite some ham-handed campaigning, came out ahead in the popular vote in 2000 and lost the presidency by only some hundreds of votes in Florida. With Blair at its head, Labor won unprecedented re-election victories in 2001 and 2005.
Now, less than a generation later, both New Democrats and New Labor seem defunct.
Both parties have moved well to the left. Barack Obama and Blair’s successor, Gordon Brown, head governments that are running budget deficits of 10 percent of gross domestic product. Both are promoting higher taxes and expansion of government programs.
The financial crisis is one reason for the large deficits. But it is undeniable that to varying extents both Obama and Brown have pursued more statist policies than their predecessors did a dozen years ago.
And it is undeniable too that both are in trouble with the voters.
In these circumstances it is surprising that the pundit class is not chiding Obama and Brown for abandoning the politically successful policies of Clinton and Blair. The same pundit class is always ready to chide American Republicans and British Conservatives for not pursuing the courses that Rockefeller Republicans and pre-Thatcher “wet” Conservatives pursued with some political success a much longer time ago.
Rocky and the wets supported a continuing expansion of government and maintaining the power of labor unions. But a British party last won an election on that platform in 1974, 36 years ago, and no American president has been elected on such a platform between 1964 and 2008. And with Democrats plunging in the polls, Obama’s election is beginning to look like an exception that proves the rule.
Americans may have voted for “hope and change,” but not in the form of the 2009 stimulus package and the 2010 health care bill.
Looking back in history, the Rockefeller Republicans chose their course because they believed their party could not beat New Deal Democrats except by moving some distance toward their philosophy. And in particular they believed they could not beat Democrats in New York, which in the first half of the 20th century was both the nation’s largest state and one of the politically most marginal.
But by the early 1960s New York was no longer the nation’s largest state and was safely Democratic. And by the early 1970s Americans were no longer voting for big government. The Rockefeller strategy was rendered obsolete.
It’s not clear that the Clinton New Democratic strategy is similarly obsolete. Clinton calculated that Democrats could not win except by making inroads in the South and by making big gains in the suburbs. That’s how he won twice, and Obama improved on his leads in the suburbs and carried three Southern states with Northern-accented suburbs (Virginia, North Carolina and Florida).
But Obama ran well behind in eight Southern-accented and Mountain states that Clinton carried in 1992. And polling now shows Democrats weaker than Obama was in 2008 virtually everywhere except in university towns and the affluent precincts of metro New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco.
Similarly, in Britain polling has shown Brown’s Labor party holding its traditional redoubts in declining industrial towns but getting shellacked in the affluent suburbs where Blair’s New Labor thrived.
The left parties have reacted to their unpopularity by playing the race card. Democrats have tried to portray Tea Partiers as racist and Brown called a lifelong Labor voter who questioned his policies a “bigoted woman.”
Blaming the voters is the last resort of a party in trouble. Old Labor and the Obama Democrats may not yet be finished. But they’re not doing as well as their “third way” predecessors.
Michael Barone is a resident fellow at AEI.
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