Gerhard-Bill-Lionel-Tonyism? : It's Not about How You Define the 'Third Way.' It's about Maintaining a Grip on Power

By McGuire, Stryker | Newsweek International, December 6, 1999 | Go to article overview

Gerhard-Bill-Lionel-Tonyism? : It's Not about How You Define the 'Third Way.' It's about Maintaining a Grip on Power


McGuire, Stryker, Newsweek International


Police helicopters clattered noisily above Florence's narrow streets and Renaissance glories. Down below a half-dozen motorcades--blue lights flashing, sirens wailing--brought the city to an obeisant standstill. The caravans were like religious processions for these modern-day Medici princes: Clinton of the United States, Blair of Britain, Schroder of Germany, Jospin of France, D'Alema of Italy, Cardoso of Brazil. The Masters of the Center-Left Universe had come to town to chart the course of what banners from the Fortezza da Basso to the Ponte Vecchio proclaimed to be progressive governance for the XXI century. Or as Al From, president of the Washington-based Democratic Leadership Council, put it more plainly: "How does this thing go forward?"

"This thing" is what is commonly known as the Third Way, although hardly anyone uses the term in polite conversation anymore. The catch phrase has fallen into such disfavor that it was pointedly dropped from the official title of the informal summit in Florence two weekends ago. The Third Way has launched a thousand conferences, books, think tanks and, yes, magazine articles. But nobody agrees on what, if anything, it means. It has no "Das Kapital," nor any party platform to light the way. It's a process, an ongoing conversation among politicians, political strategists and political theorists about governing along a centrist course between the old and mostly discarded ideologies of left and right. In policy terms, it means finding a navigable channel between all-out Thatcherism and old-style socialism. In practical terms--often overlooked, they are in fact the ones that politicians really care about--the Third Way means finding a way of staying in power.

The heads of government who met in Florence were elected because they seemed to know the way ahead. That does not make them ideological sextuplets. These leaders--along with their counterparts in other center- left governments around the world--run countries with very different political traditions and problems. President Fernando Cardoso's problems in a relatively poor, developing country like Brazil bear little resemblance to Prime Minister Tony Blair's, much less those of a less populous, affluent society like Sweden. "The Third Way is mainly a discussion between Blair and Clinton," Swedish Prime Minister Goran Persson told me recently.

Yet even Bill Clinton and Tony Blair cannot use the same template. They get along famously. They and their wives spent two hours together after the Saturday dinner in Florence. But while they are among the few who dare to utter the words "third way," Blair would never--could never--go as far as Clinton has gone in removing safety nets for the unemployed and the disadvantaged. In the same way, Chancellor Gerhard Schroder and Prime Minister Lionel Jospin cannot crack the whip with their trade unions the way Clinton and Blair can.

Even within the European Union, models for governance don't move as freely across borders as goods and people do. …

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