European Affairs

Those on the right on both sides of the Atlantic have gone further and charged that the election (especially in the light of the Republicans' success in retaining control of Congress) represents a victory for the conservative message of tax cuts, smaller government, privatizing social security, gun rights, and increased defense spending.

As the British weekly magazine The Spectator recently editorialized, "Perhaps the Bush victory did show that you can still win from the moderate, compassionate center-right; perhaps, after all, people were interested in social security reform and cuts in taxation."

The hope on the right, and the concern on the left, is that the Bush victory, narrow as it was, will have a domino effect, knocking down center-left governments throughout Europe. There is a historical precedent for this argument. Presidents Eisenhower, Johnson, Reagan, and Bush all had philosophical counterparts in 10 Downing Street during their terms in office.

Mr. Clinton's victory in 1992 ushered in a wave of new center-left governments in Britain, France, The Netherlands, Germany, and Italy. Many of these countries face elections over the next two years, and conservative leaders like Britain's William Hague, the leader of the opposition Conservative Party, are already embracing "compassionate conservative" policies and themes.

It is premature to argue that this election sets a bad precedent for center-left governments in Europe. Here are some points to consider:

  • The election did not deliver a clear mandate for change. Rather it seemed to be a continuation of the "politics of impeachment," where strong partisans on either side supported their respective candidates and independents split their vote down the middle. It is clear that Mr. Bush will have to work with both sides and govern from the center. This is hardly a defeat for the New Democratic approach.
  • Mr. Gore ran a campaign targeted at traditional Democratic constituencies. In an attempt to distinguish himself from Mr. Clinton, he ran "as his own man," embracing a populist message which emphasized taking on unpopular Health Management Organizations, oil and tobacco companies and environmental polluters, and "fighting for working families."

Crucially, Mr. Gore failed to make the current economic prosperity a central election issue. As a result, Mr. Bush was able to argue that government plays an insignificant role in the success of the economy.

Mr. Gore also lacked a larger thematic framework for his campaign, resulting in a platform that at times seemed to be little more than a list of small spending programs. On too many critical issues, he did not emphasize the New Democrat message of reform - be it education, medicare or social security - preferring instead to emphasize the protection and shoring up of existing programs.

This approach succeeded in mobilizing the base of core constituencies, but failed to win over swing voters, particularly those in the suburbs. Arguably, had Mr. Gore advocated more of the New Democratic themes and ideas, he would have gained a broader base of support.

  • On a rhetorical level, Mr. Bush moved to the middle and presented himself as "a different kind of Republican." His campaign message was a mixture of reform on issues such as education and social security and conservatism on tax cuts and gun control.

Unlike Mr. Clinton in 1992, who challenged his party's traditional positions on such issues as welfare reform, fiscal discipline, trade, and crime, Mr. Bush provided superficial changes to existing conservative ideas without fundamentally altering the substance.

Nevertheless even these changes were enough to separate him from the more fiercely partisan and conservative congressional Republicans and win over some independent voters. Bush borrowed from the New Democrat playbook and showed that Third Way ideas have been a lever of change even in the Republican Party. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

  • Personalities mattered in this presidential campaign. In a time of unprecedented economic prosperity, personality and campaign execution matter more than specific policy prescriptions. Mr. Bush was perceived to be the more attractive candidate despite the fact that a majority of the electorate agreed more with Mr. Gore on the issues.

Added to this was the largely unspoken role of the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Mr. Gore was implicitly linked to all the charges of impropriety leveled at the Clinton administration over the last eight years. Issues relating to specific personalities have little bearing on broad political trends outside the United States.

  • This was more than a presidential election. While Republicans retained control of Congress, Democrats picked up seats in both the Senate and House. More importantly, most of the gains were made by New Democratic candidates.

The New Democratic coalition in the Senate is likely to add at least six members to its growing ranks, swelling the total to nineteen or twenty. Most of the newly elected Democratic House members are likewise New Democrats.

Such trends show that New Democrats are winning elections, often in highly competitive districts, and bode well for the future of the movement. In addition, these groups in the House and Senate will play a key role in setting the agenda, ensuring that Congress will govern from the center. Arguably, this is exactly what the electorate voted for, implying that voters are looking for a continuation of Clinton administration policy, hardly a rejection of the Third Way.

The long term prospects for Third Way ideas, both in the United States and in Europe, are promising. New Democratic ideas and values that once found little voice in the Democratic party, have become accepted in the political mainstream. Whereas Democrats in the 1970s and 1980s were perceived to be the party of big government, New Democrats called for fiscal responsibility and the "reinvention" of government.

By some measures, the Clinton administration has succeeded in shrinking the size of government to that of President John F. Kennedy's administration, has eliminated the budget deficit and has put the country on a course toward paying down the debt by 2013. In last year's election, one needed to look high and low for a candidate that did not run on a mantle of fiscal responsibility. Similarly, previously controversial issues like welfare and crime no longer create the divisions they once did.

It is not a coincidence that like-minded centrist leaders, articulating similar themes such as fiscal responsibility and reform of the welfare state, have been elected in Europe, Australia and South America. The modernization of the center-left reflects fundamental structural changes that have been occurring throughout the world.

Global capital markets have undermined the ability of governments to sustain deficit spending and big government. The emergence of the so-called new economy calls for an innovation-oriented policy framework based on an open and flexible regulatory regime, targeted investments in education, research and development, energetic leadership to expand trade and investment, modernization of the social contract, and reinvention and digitalization of government.

In addition, an increasingly educated and affluent class of people, less tied to political parties and ideology, has emerged as a potent force in the electorate. Such voters are more pragmatic and result-oriented; they see government neither as the problem nor as the solution to the problems they face.

These underlying structural changes will continue to manifest themselves regardless of Mr. Bush's contested victory. They will continue to demand a willingness to move beyond the outdated left-right debate and find innovative solutions to pressing public policy challenges.

This election did not represent a defeat for Third Way ideas. But center-left governments in Europe should still draw several important lessons. First, governing on a Third Way platform is necessary, but not sufficient. Center-left parties must make the connection in the electorate's mind between economic prosperity and the policies that produced it.

Moreover, continued electoral success for center-left parties requires that they brand the policies as their own. Mr. Gore's failure to embrace the New Democrat label during his campaign opened the door for Mr. Bush to occupy the center ground and identify himself as "new kind of Republican."

Secondly, and more importantly, Third Way thinkers must vigorously pursue the next generation of policy innovations. They must be willing to address emerging controversial issues, such as social security and medicare reform, and challenge existing constituent orthodoxies within the party. Simply resting on the success of the past allows opponents to appropriate the mantle of reform.

Finally, practitioners of the Third Way must identify and nurture the next generation of leaders. To be a self-sustaining political movement, the Third Way must be identified with more than a few recognizable individuals. It must be perceived as a broader set of ideas and principles that will form the basis of governing long after its current advocates - whether they be Mr. Clinton in the United States, Chancellor Gerhard Schröder in Germany or Prime Minister Tony Blair in Britain - have left office. The hard work has just begun.

Jenny Bates, International Economist, Trade in the New Economy Project, Progressive Policy Institute; and Steven J. Nider, Director, Foreign and Security Studies, Progressive Policy Institute


This article was published in European Affairs: Volume number II, Issue number I in the Winter of 2001.