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In 1992, Bill Clinton ran as a “new kind of Democrat,” one who would “end welfare as we know it” and craft a society that would reward those who “work hard and play by the rules.” Clinton knew that he could not win as a traditional liberal, so he crafted the now-famous “Third Way” approach, and campaigned and governed under a Third Way banner.
Of course, the Third Way was reinforced by the disastrous (from the Democrats’ perspective) 1994 Midterm Elections. Clinton accepted a Republican welfare reform bill (after two vetoes), balanced the budget (after much Republican prodding) and expanded free trade. At the same time, he proposed a bevy of micro-reforms that won bipartisan approval, in part because they were cleverly crafted so that Republicans could not vote against them. Through a combination of circumstance, accident, and design, Clinton became the Third Way president he had promised.
One might, therefore, expect him and his wife to revive the Third Way once the latter finally announces her candidacy for president. But based on Ira Stoll’s reporting of the Clintons’ recent appearance at the Harkin Steak Fry in Iowa, we shouldn’t count on the Third Way making a comeback:
One of Bill Clinton’s great achievements as president was to win passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement, a tariff reduction treaty that Clinton’s Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers has described, together with other tariff reductions through GATT/WTO, as “the largest tax cut in the history of the world.” Yet at the Iowa Steak Fry, Clinton danced away from that accomplishment, emphasizing what he called “fair trade and not just free trade.”
[. . .]
Clinton’s great domestic policy achievement other than free trade, welfare reform, was not mentioned by him at the Iowa Steak Fry or in the DSCC letter.
To be sure, Stoll writes that “Bill Clinton will surely find a way, once the midterm elections and the Democratic primary is over, to tone down the partisan Leftism and reach out to more centrist and independent voters.” But for now, Team Clinton is veering heavily Left, which may make veering back to the middle difficult if and when Hillary Clinton locks up the Democratic presidential nomination. Recall that the Clintons were Third Way adherents during the 1992 primary season — not just during the general election — when they had to appeal to moderates, independents, and disaffected Republicans. In contrast, Team Clinton will allow no such language during the 2016 primaries and caucuses, and possibly through the general election.
So, for any who think that voting for Hillary Clinton will be a great way to bring back the 1990s and the Third Way, think again. The Clintons aren’t interested in creating some kind of permanent philosophical shift in the Democratic party, but in winning. If that means repudiating Bill’s political and governmental legacy, well, he’ll be the first person to advocate doing so. That’s how devoted he and the rest of the Clinton machine are to ideas and principles.