Democrats hail the 'third way'

December 07, 1998|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- There was abundant self-congratulation here the other day at the Democratic Leadership Council's annual meeting. The assembled "New Democrats" boasted that their focus on a middle-road "third way" between liberalism and conservatism had been resoundingly endorsed in the Nov. 3 elections.

Largely dodging discussion of the threatened impeachment of the No. 1 "New Democrat," speaker after speaker credited Democratic candidates' emphasis on moderate, innovative approaches to education, welfare, Social Security and health-care reform as the key to their success.

They put various names on the "New Democrat" approach. Vice President Al Gore called it "practical idealism." Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, advocating a restructuring of public education, talked of greater "control and accountability." Al From, president of the DLC, referred to "centrist, progressive" and "empowering" government.

Taking on Bush

Mr. Gore and Mr. From both ridiculed the claim of newly re-elected Republican Gov. George W. Bush of Texas that he practices "compassionate conservatism," suggesting it was a contradiction in terms. Such Republicans, Mr. Gore said, "call for opportunity combined with responsibility. I wonder where that came from." At the same time, Mr. From dismissed "a certain governor of Texas" as "New Democrat Lite."

The fact is that conservative Republicans like Jack Kemp and Newt Gingrich were among the first politicians to emphasize both opportunity and empowerment, talking about making the country "the opportunity society" and creating "empowerment zones" in impoverished inner-city neighborhoods. But, Mr. Gore said, "there is a difference between using the rhetoric of the center and actually governing from the center."

In any event, the "New Democrats" were in high spirits, treating their net gain of five House seats -- out of the 435 decided in the off-year congressional elections -- and no net loss of Senate seats, as if it were a second coming.

More than the modest numerical gain, they basked in their sense that, behind the leadership of President Clinton, they had moved the Democratic Party away from its old liberal identification.

Mr. Gore cited balancing of the budget, moving welfare recipients to the work force and enacting "tough new punishment to get gangs, guns and drugs off our streets" as concrete evidence that the party had changed its stripes under DLC prodding.

Mr. From, a longtime critic of the party's liberals, happily reported that in the next presidential election the New Deal generation that had cast its votes for Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry Truman will comprise less than 10 percent of the electorate, overshadowed by the baby-boomers and Generation Xers who embrace centrist, "third way" politics.

Avoiding conspicuous liberalism, he claimed, was a key to the Nov. 3 results. "When the Republicans went into their cry of 'liberal, liberal, liberal,' it didn't work," he said, "because it was no longer true." Mark Penn, Mr. Clinton's pollster agreed: "The old talk of tax-and-spend liberal doesn't work anymore."

Holding the base

Noting that the American electorate is becoming more affluent and suburban, Mr. From said, "we can't just talk to our [old liberal] base, because our base is declining." But the party's ability to hold that old base, Mr. Penn said, while becoming "the party of moderation in the year of the moderate," was critical.

In shifting to the center, several speakers suggested that the Democratic Party also was able to demonstrate a new unity that paid off in the face of divisive GOP tactics, particularly in pressing for impeachment of the president.

Mr. Penn claimed that doing so hurt Republican candidates Nov. 3. Roy Romer, retiring governor of Colorado and the Democratic Party general chairman, said the GOP's continued pursuit of impeachment is still hurting the opposition party.

Whether the Democratic Party will be able in the next two years to travel the centrist "third way," while keeping its old liberal base content, will be a major challenge for Mr. Clinton. So far he seems to have succeeded, for all his personal political woes.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from the Washington Bureau.

Pub Date: 12/07/98

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