Clinton and Blair Envision a `Third Way' International MovementBy Thomas B. Edsall
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 28 1998; Page A24
President Clinton and British Prime Minister Tony Blair are seeking to take advantage of the unprecedented number of Western governments controlled by center-left parties to turn their "third way" political strategies in the United States and Great Britain into an international movement.
Their goal is to give formal direction to the general trend in which liberal, labor and socialist parties are abandoning government ownership of major industries and tax and spending programs that aggressively seek to redistribute income.
Blair and Clinton have met twice this year -- once in this country and last month in England -- to discuss the so-called third way strategy that is neither the traditional right or left approach to governing. Clinton also explored the subject at a May meeting with Romano Prodi, the Italian prime minister, and on June 7 at a Camp David meeting with Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso.
While playing down any immediate organizational plans, some of those involved in the discussions suggest that the long-range aim would be to set up a middle-ground counterpart to the Socialist International on the left or the International Democrat Union on the right.
Any formal efforts to set up such an organization or forum would begin after the German elections in September. If Gerhard Schroeder, the Social Democratic candidate, wins, the German leadership would help Clinton and Blair counter some quiet opposition in the French and Portuguese left.
In place of direct state intervention, Clinton and Blair have been promoting a version of liberal-left politics that calls for competitive, free-market strategies while using government to prevent the market from devastating those least prepared to live without the protections of the welfare state.
"For the first time in all human history," Clinton told the 50th anniversary celebration of the World Trade Organization in Geneva last month, "the argument over which is better, free enterprise or state socialism, has been won, when people on every continent seek to join the free market system."
Clinton contended that the obligation of government is "to ensure that spirited economic competition among nations never becomes a race to the bottom, in environmental protections, consumer protections or labor standards. We should be leveling up, not leveling down."
Blair says the current political balance "is an historic opportunity, and we're seizing it. We are taking the historic values of the left -- our long commitment to fairness, democracy and freedom -- and we are applying them to our new world of dynamic markets."
Writing in the London Independent, Blair declared: "It is the center-left which holds the intellectual advantage; it is our agenda which will reshape people's lives. . . . [T]he right-wing agenda turns out to be hollow at the core."
The steady growth in international economic competition -- globalization -- has posed a three-decade-long dilemma for the Democratic Party in the United States and socialist-social democratic parties in Europe and other parts of the world.
These parties have depended on national high wage, pro-union, welfare spending policies -- and in some cases state ownership -- to maintain the support of working-class and poor voters. Faced with competition from low-wage countries, the center-left political parties have encountered severe difficulties maintaining widespread support for policies that are seen as costly liabilities in the international struggle for market shares.
"The recent record of socialist, social democratic and labor parties around the world" shows "that none of them are socialist. . . . Not one of the important left parties advocates widespread public ownership or extensive redistributionist policies involving progressive income taxes and entitlements," Seymour Martin Lipset and Gary Marks wrote in "It Didn't Happen Here: The Failure of Socialism in America."
"The British election in May 1997, won overwhelmingly by the Labour Party after it had rejected its historic emphasis on public ownership, basically puts a period, an end to a century of socialist efforts in Europe to eliminate private ownership of the economy. The party's leader, Tony Blair, has been deliberately following the free market, smaller government policies of Bill Clinton," Lipset and Marks wrote.
The Clinton-Blair "third way" approach claims to balance the inescapable power of competitive markets with policies seeking to provide workers with access to job training, health care and some pension security.
The de facto Clinton-Blair alliance, which the two leaders are conducting at both a personal and staff level, is viewed by some conservatives as simply a response or accommodation to the ideological upheavals initiated by President Ronald Reagan and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
"One of the ironies of history is that left-of-center governments are presiding over the privatizing of Social Security and the introduction of market forces into the public sector," said William Kristol, editor of the conservative Weekly Standard. "Reagan and Thatcher and [German chancellor Helmut] Kohl will remain the giant figures of the late 20th century, not Clinton, Blair and Schroeder."
"Blair in many ways represents the consolidation of Thatcherism; Clinton represents an accommodation to many conservative ideas," said Adam Meyerson, editor of the Heritage Foundation's magazine, Policy Review.
Meyerson was more open to the possibility that Clinton and Blair could substantially change politics on a large scale, but said he has "not seen it yet. It's more talk than action." He contended that Clinton "had the potential to reshape politics much more so than he has done, while Blair has been much bolder on issues such as privatizing Social Security and school reform."
On the left, both here and in Europe, there are those who suspect that Blair, with Clinton's assistance, wants, in the words of one U.S. activist, "to put a knife into the heart of what remains of international socialism. There isn't much spirit in the Socialist International, and Blair is acting like he would like to see some kind of `third way' organization replace it."
While disputing any goal of undermining the Socialist International, Adrian McMenamin, spokesman for Blair's Labor Party, said Blair has argued "that the party needs to enter into a dialogue with other center-left parties which might not be socialist." He said the moment is not ripe for the actual formation of an international organization, but Blair is interested in setting up some kind of "framework" or "loose organization," where representatives of center-left parties could discuss varying approaches to governance.
In the United States, Sidney Blumenthal is the Clinton aide working most closely with the Blair government and with center-left parties in France, Germany, Italy and Brazil. "We are sharing our experiences on the issues that confront us in all advanced industrial nations," Blumenthal said, describing the discussions as informal.
"With Great Britain, we have forged a new special relationship, a 21st-century alliance, as the president called it, based not only on all our traditional mutual interests, but on our common conviction of the necessity for a new social contract," Blumenthal said in a speech last month at the World Policy Institute.
"Many of the criticisms of Blair," Blumenthal said, "from both the left and the right, are exactly similar to those of the president. Blair is accused of spin and waffling, lacking conviction, offering up a blur, just conservatism in disguise. But the emergence of trans-Atlantic, one-nation politics of a new third way makes it increasingly clear that far more than personality is at stake."
Within the feuding wings of the Democratic Party, the "third way" approach has won support from traditional adversaries. On the Democratic Party's right flank, Al From, head of the Democratic Leadership Council, and one of his long-term critics, Robert Kuttner, editor of the liberal, pro-labor American Prospect magazine, both agreed that the "third way" offers mechanisms for the Democratic Party and other left parties to remain competitive in a global economy.
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