Left parties are in trouble in the Anglosphere. Here in America, Democrats are doing worse in the polls today than at any time in the last 50 years. In Britain, the Labour party is on the brink of finishing third, behind both the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats, in the election next Thursday.
All of which raises the question: What happened to the “third way” center-left movement that once seemed to sweep all before it?
Only a dozen years ago, in 1998, President Clinton enjoyed 70 percent job approval. Prime Minister Blair was basking in adulation in his first full year in office.
Bill Clinton’s “third way” New Democrats and Tony Blair’s “New Labour” party seemed to have a bright and long future ahead. Clinton’s designated successor, Al Gore, despite some ham-handed campaigning, came out ahead in the popular vote in 2000 and lost the presidency by only some hundreds of votes in Florida. With Blair at its head, Labour won an unprecedented series of three general-election victories, winning reelection in 2001 and 2005.
Now, less than a generation later, both New Democrats and New Labour seem defunct.
Both parties have moved well to the left. Barack Obama and Blair’s successor, Gordon Brown, head governments that are running budget deficits of 10 percent of gross domestic product. Both are promoting higher taxes and expansion of government programs.
The financial crisis is one reason for the large deficits. But it is undeniable that to varying extents both Obama and Brown have pursued more statist policies than their predecessors did a dozen years ago.
And it is undeniable, too, that both are in trouble with the voters.
In these circumstances, it is surprising that the pundit class is not chiding Obama and Brown for abandoning the politically successful policies of Clinton and Blair. The same pundit class is always ready to chide American Republicans and British Conservatives for not pursuing the courses that Rockefeller Republicans and pre-Thatcher “wet” Conservatives pursued with some political success a much longer time ago.
Rocky and the wets supported continuing the expansion of government and maintaining the power of labor unions. But a British party last won an election on that platform in 1974, 36 years ago, and no American president was elected on such a platform between 1964 and 2008. And with Democrats plunging in the polls, Obama’s election is beginning to look like an exception that proves the rule.
Americans may have voted for “hope and change,” but not in the form of the 2009 stimulus package and the 2010 health-care bill.
Looking back in history, the Rockefeller Republicans chose their course because they believed their party could not beat New Deal Democrats except by moving some distance toward their philosophy. In particular, they believed they could not beat Democrats in New York, which in the first half of the 20th century was both the nation’s largest state in terms of population and one of the politically most marginal.
But by the early 1960s, New York was no longer the nation’s largest state and was safely Democratic. And by the early 1970s, Americans were no longer voting for big government. The Rockefeller strategy was rendered obsolete.
It’s not clear that the Clinton New Democratic strategy is similarly obsolete. Clinton calculated that Democrats could not win except by making inroads in the South and by making big gains in the suburbs. That’s how he won twice, and Obama improved on his leads in the suburbs and carried three Southern states with Northern-accented suburbs (Virginia, North Carolina, and Florida).
But Obama ran well behind in eight Southern-accented and Mountain states that Clinton carried in 1992. And polling now shows Democrats weaker than Obama was in 2008 virtually everywhere except in university towns and the affluent precincts of metro New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco.
Similarly in Britain, polling has shown Brown’s Labour party holding its traditional redoubts in declining industrial towns but getting shellacked in the affluent suburbs where Tony Blair’s New Labour thrived.
The left parties have reacted to their unpopularity by playing the race card. Democrats have tried to portray tea partiers as racist, and Brown called a lifelong Labour voter who questioned his policies a “bigoted woman.”
Blaming the voters is the last resort of a party in trouble. Old Labour and the Obama Democrats may not yet be finished. But they’re not doing as well as their “third way” predecessors.
– Michael Barone is senior political analyst for the Washington Examiner. © 2010 Washington Examiner. Distributed by Creators.com.