TCS Daily

The Strange Death That No One Cares About

By Orrin C. Judd - January 27, 2005 12:00 AM

There was a death in Washington recently that received far less attention than it deserved: the New Democrat philosophy of Bill Clinton is dead. This is a truly extraordinary development; one that should not be allowed to pass so quietly.

Consider two very different stories separated by two presidential terms -- first, from 1996, The end of Social Security as we know it? (Robert Dreyfuss, November/December 1996, Mother Jones).

        "Democratic Senator Bob Kerrey of Nebraska is agitated. Surrounded 
        by lobbyists at a private strategy session on Social Security, he fumes, 
        'I don't know what the president thinks, but I know it's going to take 
        presidential leadership.'

        "You might think Kerrey, a prominent Democrat, would want a re-elected 
        President Clinton to go to the mat to protect Social Security, the crown 
        jewel of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal. But in fact, Kerrey is the 
        chief sponsor of legislation that would begin to 'privatize' Social Security, 
        and he wants Clinton's support. Asked whether he's worried about 
        progressive Democrats mobilizing to defend Social Security, Kerrey 
        bristles, "I'll kick the [stuffing] out of any liberal who tries that."

        "So far, Kerrey is one of only a handful of politicians who have ventured 
        out into the open on the subject. Neither Clinton nor Bob Dole has 
        chosen to make an issue of Social Security, long considered an 
        untouchable 'third rail' of American politics because of its broad popularity. 
        But behind the scenes, a coalition of Wall Street money managers, 
        conservative ideologues, and a growing number of heretical Democrats 
        like Kerrey is drawing up plans to dismantle the Social Security safety 
        net in favor of a private system of individual retirement accounts. 

        "Bet on this: No matter who wins the presidential election, Social Security 
        will be on the table in 1997. By 1999, Social Security as we know it may 
        no longer exist."

Obviously we made it past 1999 without Social Security being transformed -- despite Bill Clinton himself calling for the creation of a new form of private retirement accounts and the investment of a portion of the Social Security trust funds in the stock markets in his 1999 State of the Union -- but what ever happened to that "growing number of heretical Democrats?"

Our second story, from earlier this month, suggests the heretics have been meekly brought back to the orthodox New Deal fold, Social Security Battle Likely (Ronald Brownstein, January 5, 2005, LA Times)

        "The Democratic Leadership Council, the party's leading centrist organization, 
        and Third Way, a new group working with moderate Senate Democrats, 
        expect to issue statements soon opposing Bush's push to divert part of 
        the Social Security payroll tax into accounts that individuals could invest in 
        the stock market, officials of the groups say.

        "The opposition is significant because both groups have aggressively 
        argued that Democrats should not flatly resist changes to Social Security. 
        Also, in the past some of the leading officials associated with the Democratic 
        Leadership Council have backed the type of private investment accounts 
        Bush is promoting."

And so the restructuring that once seemed all but certain is now cast into doubt, in no small measure because what was the Democratic center has been assimilated by the Party's traditional Left. As recently as two years ago, New Democrats declared that: "We believe in reforming democracy and government to strip away top-down bureaucracy and give citizens and communities the power to solve their own problems. We must be willing to reform old programs in order to preserve our oldest values." But today they have become just another force for reaction, defenders of those same "old programs" and the very "top-down" status quo they once professed to believe in reforming.

This is a stunning reversal to anyone observing it from outside the Party. Consecutive improbable losses to George W. Bush and a string of defeats at the congressional and state levels have left Democrats quite publicly groping for an explanation of what went wrong and how to become competitive again, yet they're not just ignoring their only recent electoral successes -- Bill Clinton's election and re-election -- but even the wing of the Party that engineered those victories has abandoned the formula that made them possible.

We need not determine whether Mr. Clinton was truly a centrist and a reformer at heart in order to accept the idea that when he ran in 1992 and 1996 he positioned himself as someone who would pursue the Third Way, the middle ground between the extreme statism of liberal Democrats and the laissez-faire of the far Right. This was most evident in his advisor Dick Morris's strategy of "Triangulation" -- which cast Bill Clinton as the lonely voice of reason, defending us not just from the mercurial Newt Gingrich and the Republicans in Congress but also from the equally untrustworthy Democrats. Never mind the Third Way; he was practically a one-man third party. Whatever one may think of a game plan that essentially threw his fellow Democrats under the bus, the fact is it worked. The middle turned out to be pretty fertile turf for a national politician.

W is for...

This lesson was not lost on George W. Bush and Karl Rove, who proceeded to craft a "compassionate conservatism" that bore more than a passing resemblance to Bill Clinton's Third Way. In the 2000 campaign Mr. Bush made education, an issue on which Republicans had been getting killed for years, a centerpiece of his candidacy. The canny calculation was that by talking it up and by offering increased funding you could also enact fundamental reforms -- testing, standards, vouchers, and the like. Similarly, he grabbed the Third Rail of American politics -- promising to strengthen and save Social Security but to do so via private accounts. On issues like these, Mr. Bush was able to take the battle to Democrats by accepting the reality that voters wanted a social safety net, but then offering to bring market forces to bear to improve the programs. Coming at the end of a century that had vindicated capitalism and discredited socialism, the idea of a more free market oriented system for providing social services proved just as politically fruitful for him as it had for Bill Clinton.

Meanwhile, Al Gore, who had been a New Democrat when he was in Congress and who, as Bill Clinton's vice president, seemed a natural heir to the Third Way mantle, chose to run to the Left instead. Given the closeness of the 2000 election it can certainly be claimed that this was a sensible decision, but Mr. Gore did lose despite being an incumbent representative of an administration that had given the country eight years of peace, unprecedented prosperity, and even a massive budget surplus. It was a very winnable race and not only did he ultimately lose it but, even had he eked out victory in Florida, he'd have faced a Congress that remained in Republican hands. It seems like wiser heads in the Party should have pondered how they'd lost not just the election but also the middle ground to George Bush.

Unfortunately for the Democrats, the narrowness of the result and the bitterness of the aftermath in 2000 meant that they never really undertook a consideration of the possible implications of such a loss. Likewise, they were able to convince themselves that their congressional mid-term losses in 2002 -- to candidates like Elizabeth Dole who expressly ran on Social Security reform -- were just a function of 9-11. Thus, in the 2004 primaries Democrats quickly reduced themselves to a choice between John Kerry, one of the most liberal members of the Senate, and Howard Dean, who no matter how he had governed Vermont rapidly became a creature of the far Left denizens of the Internet. Senators Joe Lieberman and Bob Graham, both plausible New Democrats, made rather perfunctory runs but never registered much support in the polls and were gone in a hurry. A party that had experienced some success in electing moderate Southern governors was instead merely picking between liberal Northeasterners.

The dynamics of such a race inevitably forced John Kerry to move Left in order to answer Howard Dean's criticisms, whether that's where he would have chosen to run from or not. The resulting presidential contest, between a George Bush still running on a mantra of reform and the Senator who'd painted himself into the box of opposing everything the President had ever done or wanted to do, was never much in doubt. Mr. Bush stayed right around a 50% approval rating in the polls and finished there. The only surprise came with the margin of votes he won by and the unusual number of Senate seats he brought with him. (Significantly, the two new Democratic Senators to be elected, Ken Salazar (CO) and Barack Obama (IL), had positioned themselves as centrists.) This defeat for the Democrats has at last brought about the soul-searching and the quest for new ideas and strategies that they probably should have undertaken as early as 2000.

Across the Anglosphere

Nor is this political realignment an exclusively American phenomenon. The Left in Britain and America has been bewildered by how easily Tony Blair gets along with George W. Bush, with whom they imagine him to have little in common. In reality, besides both being religious men and sharing a faith in the universal value of liberty, they have both pursued Third Way political philosophies on domestic matters. Mr. Blair's more liberal version is a reflection of the differences in our two societies as much as anything. If we survey the British political scene we can see what might have been had Democrats not ceded the Third Way to Mr. Bush -- polls indicate that in the coming elections Mr. Blair's Labour Party will win very nearly twice as many seats as the Tories. As the Democrats have lost control of the political agenda to George Bush, so too have British Conservatives lost out to Tony Blair. So completely has he co-opted their ideas that Mr. Blair now has to assure the members of his own party that he's not just a "warmed-up neo-Thatcherite," even if that's pretty obviously what he is. The example of England then should be especially frightening for Democrats because of the possibility that they might go the way of the Tories. It is at least arguable, however, that this is an Anglosphere-wide phenomenon, if we consider John Howard, who has likewise just won an unprecedented electoral victory over the Australian Labour Party, to be pursuing his own conservative version of the Third Way. It looks as if whichever party is most closely associated with reform of the welfare state, rather than stasis, stands to reap significant and quite possibly long-term benefits at the polls.

Peering back at this chain of events, one would think that the most obvious thing that stands out is that the Democratic Party won with Bill Clinton running as a New Democrat but has been losing with some regularity to reformist Republicans when running as rigid defenders of the New Deal/Great Society. It would seem a matter of some urgency to get back to the Third Way and to contest coming legislative battles and elections on the middle ground, where most voters appear to be. This would not mean simply aping Republicans or rolling over for the President -- there are principles that should appeal to Democrats that could be realized in the process of something like Social Security reform. Democrats could come to the table with requirements that the reconstructed program include: means-testing, which they've been hesitant about in the past when it was a straight entitlement program; increased taxes, eliminating the current cap on what wages are taxed; universality, with accounts being funded by the government for the poor, disabled, and unemployed; and so on and so forth. Besides serving their own constituency groups, this would recast them as reformers in their own right and prevent George Bush from getting all the credit for whatever reform eventually emerges. Indeed, since broad Democratic support would guarantee that reform got done, they could creditably claim equal credit, as Bill Clinton and congressional Republicans shared equally in the accomplishment of Welfare Reform.

Inexplicably, Democrats would appear to discern some other lesson when they look back over recent history. It may be understandable that the most committed members of the Left cannot embrace free market reforms, but that this is the moment the New Democrats would choose to fold up their tent and meekly join with Ted Kennedy and Nancy Pelosi beggars the imagination. The Party looks to be swimming against the tide of history and runs the risk of being swept away. George Bush just became the first Republican to win the presidency with majorities in the House and Senate since Calvin Coolidge and the first re-elected president of either party to gain seats in both chambers since Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1936. Even whatever remains of the New Democrats are still trying to convince themselves this is an aberration, but the evidence suggests that, as Ronald Reagan used to say: "You ain't seen nothin' yet!"

Orrin C. Judd lives in Hanover, NH where he is the writer-in-residence at


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