January 4, 2015


There's a vacuum now in British politics. And it's Blair-shaped (Andrew Rawnsley, 4 January 2015, The Guardian)

He was Labour's most electorally successful leader and by a long way. He took a party that had lost four elections in a row and turned it into a winning machine that secured three consecutive terms. He is one of only two people to have achieved triple back-to-back election victories since the introduction of universal suffrage. His fellow hat-tricker was Margaret Thatcher and his aggregate parliamentary majorities were larger than hers. He won his party 13 continuous years in office. That is not only the longest period of Labour government ever, it is the longest stretch of non-Tory government since 1762. I am aware that I've pointed this out before. I draw it to your attention again because it is such a jaw-dropper of a fact.

He presided over the most sustained economic growth in British history and at a time when other major economies tipped into recession. That was accompanied by stealthy but significant redistribution towards the less well-off while record sums were poured into public services. It is too easily forgotten how tattered was the state of the public realm back in 1997 when schools had roofs that let in the rain and the hospital building stock was in the advanced stages of decay. The current squeeze on public services would have been felt that much harder had the Blair governments not invested heavily in improving the social fabric.

Of course, his original election-winning coalition shrank over time. The laws of political entropy and his own mistakes saw to that. When he left office in 2007, pollsters nevertheless reported that a chunky majority of voters thought he had been a good prime minister overall and most also regarded him as "likable". Not a bad result for a man who had been at the top for more than a decade and led his country into a highly divisive war in Iraq on a false prospectus and with a calamitous aftermath. Whatever he got wrong, he must have been getting something right. [...]

As we get into a long, nasty and brutish election campaign, the key question is whether Mr Blair is right. Are elections still won on the centre ground? And if they are, where is that turf these days? This gets to the essential nub of the difference between Mr Blair and Mr Miliband. The latter believes that the financial crisis changed the paradigm of politics. The Great Crash was also a Great Shift that opened up space for Labour to offer a prospectus that is more challenging to concentrations of wealth and power than New Labour dared to be. Mr Blair thinks that the centre hasn't really moved in the way his successor assumes. This also sets the former prime minister apart from the man who once claimed to be his heir. The opening shots of the battle confirm that the Tories assume that the country has shifted to the right and that it is now an election-winning proposition to promise unfunded tax cuts for the affluent and a squeeze on public provision so severe that even the most rightwing of their Lib Dem coalition partners are condemning it as ideologically driven savagery.

In the current volatile climate, it is harder than usual to discern where the centre of gravity of British politics truly lies. The financial crisis, and its aftermath, has driven voters to the left on some issues and to the right on others. But my hunch is that Mr Blair is essentially correct when he contends that voters still "group around the centre". Most people are not tribally Labour or tribally Tory or tribally anything. They have a traditionally British wariness of ideological zealotry - and often with good reason. The appeal and the animating idea of Blairism was that voters look for a government that they can trust with both the economy and with public services, which is both fair to the underprivileged and a friend of aspiration. They also look for a national leader, which Tony Blair was at his best, who can invest the country with a bit of uplifting optimism and a sense of unity rather than constantly telling everyone who they ought to hate and that everything is awful.

Today there is a Blair-shaped vacuum in British politics.

The paradox of the moment in the English-speaking world is that our politics is entirely Third Way, but neither of our parties are.  For reasons of inertia, the main parties of the right in each country remain wedded to the First Way, of the left to the Second Way.  Elections go to whichever party has leadership that deviates most from the old way and to the Third.  That's why Jeb will win easily, unless Hillary not only runs but runs as Bill in a pant suit.  

And it's why the amorphous David Cameron has a big advantage against Ed Millband, who's trying to return Labour to Second Way purity.  Mr. Cameron just needs to go all in on Thatcherism/Blairism.

Clinton, Clinton; Cuomo, Warren (Dan Balz January 3, 2014, Washington Post)

 He was the leading liberal in the Democratic Party, a politician of intellectual depth and rhetorical virtuosity. Through the 1980s, he was a counterweight to the philosophy of President Ronald Reagan and the rising conservative sentiment in the country. To the delight of his party's liberal base, Cuomo offered a vigorous defensive of an expansive role for government, with an emphasis on aiding the poor, the homeless and the downtrodden.

By the late fall of 1991, as Clinton began his rise, Cuomo suddenly appeared as a potentially serious obstacle when he announced that he would consider entering the race. Clinton was both wary of, and ready for, a Cuomo challenge -- wary due to the New York governor's national prominence and political heft; ready because he had been honing his arguments for years about the need for the Democrats to change if they hoped to recapture the White House.

Their differences were substantial. Cuomo's governmental philosophy, though he once called it "progressive pragmatism," was the embodiment of New Deal and Great Society ideas and values. After seeing Democrats defeated in three consecutive presidential elections, Clinton recognized that public faith in Great Society programs had waned, that constituency politics had its limits and that the cultural liberalism of the Democrats had created roadblocks with many voters whose support the party needed to win again nationally.

Clinton also knew at the time that there were doubts about him among party liberals. At a forum in Chicago in November 1991, he was asked a planted question about fears that he was a Republican posing as a Democrat. His answer showed his political agility to be a New Democrat rooted in old Democrat symbols. "My granddaddy thought when he died, he was going to Roosevelt," he said.

Throughout December of that year, Cuomo dithered until it was too late. On the day of the deadline for filing papers to enter the New Hampshire primary, there were chartered planes waiting on a tarmac in Albany to fly him to New Hampshire, a lectern set up outside the state capitol in Concord and throngs of reporters in each place awaiting what most thought would be a positive announcement.

In the end, Cuomo chose not to run, earning him the nickname "Hamlet on the Hudson." Mike Pride, the former editor of the Concord Monitor, tweeted the other day that, at the moment Cuomo said no, "Clinton exhaled."

Democrats and the country were denied what might have been an epic confrontation between old and new Democratic philosophies, offered by two of the party's brightest minds and political talents. We can only speculate how history might have been changed had that clash occurred.

Mario Cuomo was essentially the Democrats' Neil Kinnock, a retrograde figure who could not even have beaten our John Major.  The only real speculation is whether Bill Clinton could have won in 1996, the obvious nominee in a party even more desparate to win, or whether Republicans would have produced their own Third Way nominee, maybe Jack Kemp.  A Kemp win in 1996 and thourough reorientation of the GOP towards Third Way politics--privatized SS, etc.--would have potentially left the Democrats in history's dust.  

Posted by at January 4, 2015 9:06 AM

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