Seeking Party Central

By Corn, David | The Nation, August 10, 1998 | Go to article overview

Seeking Party Central


Corn, David, The Nation


Democratic policy wonks unite, you have nothing to lose but your bickering--and the White House, the Democratic Party and Bill Clinton and Al Gore can gain. That could have been the slogan on July 8 when Hillary Rodham Clinton, assisted by aide Sidney Blumenthal, convened a White House meeting that served as something of a truce between competing clutches of intellectuals within the Democratic Party and as an opportunity to chew over the Clintonites' latest political packaging device: the Third Way. For several hours, fifteen policy experts wrangled with the meta-question of what it means to be a Democrat. That is, what principles and values distinguish their party from Republicanism? And, they asked themselves, can we agree on the basics, even if we quarrel over Social Security privatization, NAFTA-ish trade accords and how to improve public education? The goal was to explore the possibilities of achieving policy "convergence" and crafting a coherent and compelling message to take into battle against right-wingers here and abroad.

The conversation had been orchestrated by Blumenthal. Five discussants were from the camp identified with the quarterly review The American Prospect, comfortable turf for traditional, labor-friendly liberals (Paul Start, Richard Rothstein, Barry Bluestone, Nick Littlefield and Richard Leone). On the other side were six discussants currently or formerly associated with the Democratic Leadership Council, a corporate-funded outfit a k a the conservative wing of the party (Al From, Will Marshall, William Galston, Elaine Kamarck, David Osborne, Fred Siegel). The assembled also included several people not identified with either side (Benjamin Barber, Jack Donahue, Ralph Whitehead, Barbara Whitehead). Hillary Clinton hosted. Absent were representatives of Democratic constituencies, such as labor, and policy people of the further-left segment of the party.

The First Lady, according to several participants, seemed to be addressing multiple agendas. She was trying to heal her party. She was also promoting the notion that her husband is leading an international trend dubbed the Third Way--shorthand for a governing philosophy that purports to be an alternative to both free-market conservatism and traditional welfare state liberalism, one that is mindful of markets and the private sector but that turns to government and other public entities to aid those hurt by globalization. The First Lady has been talking with British Prime Minister Tony Blair about this worldwide movement--which has manifestations in Germany, France and Spain--and she might be hoping to institutionalize this concept (or conceit). Some attendees suggest that Hillary was also tending to the Clinton legacy, as well as plotting down-to-earth politics. A policy-unified party could have a better shot at rousting Republicans from Congress and electing a Democratic successor to Clinton. Blumenthal depicts the gathering in lofty terms: "This was part of a long-term project to create a new social contract to deal with the new global economy and to expand opportunity."

Was this truly the start of the drafting of a new social bargain--or merely fancy marketing? (Remember "The Politics of Meaning"?) An effort to craft a progressive message that does matter and can move people--or merely a stab at striking an accord among sniping policy mavens for Realpolitik purposes? After all, can these two factions, which have sharply disagreed on central issues, concur on broad principles in a manner that will produce anything useful in the real world?

Toward the start of the meeting, From, the DLC president, ticked off a list of principles that define Democrats: community, equal opportunity, mutual responsibility, using government to empower people and expanding the winners' circle. But at an afternoon session, held at the DLC offices, Barry Bluestone, a University of Massachusetts professor of political economy, noted that much of this list could be seconded by a Republican.

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