Clinton and Blair: What’s Left?

The American president and the next British prime minister are strikingly alike: They are both conservatives in denial.

America’s next president has much in common with Britain’s next prime minister. Both Bill Clinton and Tony Blair are comparatively young (and make a lot of it); suffused with energy and conviction; and superbly effective on television, in front of a crowd, or face to face. The likeness goes deeper. Clinton and Blair proclaim essentially the same political philosophy, in essentially the same terms. They are champions of a “new” left: reconciled to the central role of markets in the modern economy, committed nonetheless to an active role for government, keen to foster new forms of social cooperation. The closeness is no accident. Blair, much the most effective of Labor’s recent modernizers, has modeled his electoral strategy, in substance and in style, on Clinton’s.

Something else they have in common is a reluctance to admit what this strategy implies. Both seem unaware of the price they have paid for their electoral strength–namely that, far from reviving the left, they have realigned it out of any meaningful existence. For modern anti-conservatives, the price of success has been moral and intellectual evisceration. In both the United States and Britain, where there was once a coherent (albeit often unpopular) alternative to conservatism, there is now merely a tepid version of the same, with added self-righteousness.

Evidently, this is exactly what many voters want. A Clinton campaign button puts it nicely: “At least he cares.” In Britain, likewise, those who vote for New Labor in the forthcoming election may expect little to change when Blair and his team come to power. The party’s program consists largely of assurances to that effect. But to say this misses the point. What matters is that the Tories seem a callous lot, and Tony Blair is a really nice chap.

Clinton and Blair don’t appear to be faking it. What makes them such exceptionally effective politicians is that they really do care. It would be wrong to say they have cynically repackaged what they affect to deplore. They radiate genuine conviction. If Clinton and Blair seem unaware of where their success leaves “liberalism” in the United States or “socialism” in Britain, it is not because they are hiding something but because they really are unaware. They are moderate conservatives deluding themselves that they are something else.

In 1992, Clinton would have been harder to dismiss as a conservative in denial. In his first presidential campaign he promised a lot, not the least of which was radical reform of welfare and health care. Nothing came of it. The health-care reform fell apart, and Clinton recently signed a welfare-reform law that, measured against what he first hoped to do, was a step in the wrong direction. Despite these failures, Clinton’s presidency has been pretty successful. But the main successes–curbing the budget deficit, presiding over steady growth with low inflation, shrinking the government work force, passing the North American Free-Trade Agreement–are achievements of which any moderate conservative could be proud. Unlike his failures, there is nothing very liberal about Clinton’s successes.

Clinton has learned on the job. This time, his campaign agenda is more modest, defined less by what he stands for than by what he stands against (immoderate republicanism). Blair’s strategy is the same, only more so. New Labor defines itself in opposition to two enemies: old Labor and the Tories. Given the Tory government’s unpopularity, the attack on old Labor matters more. Blair therefore renounces the policies that he and his parliamentary colleagues supported until recently. New Labor will not increase taxes, will not increase public spending, will not renationalize the companies privatized by the Tories, will not restore trade-union power, and so on.

Now that Labor’s policies, as far as one can tell, are all but identical to the Tories’, Blair’s attack on the second enemy, the Tories themselves, has to be handled with care. There is a strand of Gingrich extremism in British conservatism, but it is not yet dominant, so assaulting it as Clinton has done in America would serve little electoral purpose. (This may change once the Tories have lost the election.) Blair cannot attack the substance of Tory policies without attacking his own, so he must attack the government’s rhetoric instead. New Labor deplores the Tories’ introduction of market forces within the National Health Service, for instance. Judging by their various policy documents, however, Labor will not reverse the Tory reforms. Instead, where the Tories talk of an “internal market” (so conservative), Labor promises “proper accountability to patients” (absolutely New Labor). On education, labor laws, and many other matters, Labor seeks far-reaching reform of vocabulary, while leaving policies by and large unchanged.

It’s worth noting that the Tories’ “market” reforms (successfully portrayed by critics as capitalism-run-rampant) leave Britain’s health-care system far more nationalized than America’s would have been under Clinton’s plan (successfully portrayed by critics as a “government takeover”). In other words, the political spectrums of the two countries are, to some extent, different. But Clinton’s and Blair’s political journeys remain similar. In particular, to make good the lack of new left-of-center policies (which voters appear not to want), Clinton and Blair have pumped up the consoling left-of-center symbolism (which is still much in demand). In both cases, this comes in two main forms:

First is the apologetic mode. As decent left-of-center types, Clinton and Blair implicitly say, “We would love to do all the things that left-of-center parties used to do–but we can’t, because the world has changed.” Capital markets, globalization, information superhighways, and whatnot compel us to modernize our policies, keep taxes and public spending low, pay attention to the needs of business, and so on.

Then comes the bright, forward-looking, seizing-of-opportunities mode. Clinton’s campaign proclaims a new “Age of Possibility” for America. Blair has just published a volume of speeches and articles titled NewBritain: MyVisionof a YoungCountry. As men of the future, Clinton and Blair say they transcend traditional left-right categories. Old labels and the conflicts they represent have become hopelessly outmoded. The tensions between, say, competition and compassion, or efficiency and equity, which blighted politics for so long, are sterile quarrels of yesteryear.

There is little substance in any of this. Yes, the world has changed. It keeps doing that. But only in small respects have developments in technology and the global economy narrowed choices over policy. What really has changed is that many voters in many countries have decided that traditional left-of-center policies (e.g., higher taxes, more generous provisions for the poor) are not what they want. Many also wish to be spared any guilt that might arise on that account–which is why Clinton and Blair are on to such a good thing with, “We’d love to do that, but it’s no longer feasible.” What about new politics, transcended categories, and all that? In the future, Clinton and Blair say, false oppositions between competition and compassion, efficiency and equity, will be resolved. That would be good, but how is it to be done? Simply by saying, again and again, “We must have competition with compassion, efficiency with equity.” If only this had been understood before, we could all have become conservatives much sooner.

The clearest proof of the new left’s poverty is what Clinton and Blair have to say about the “middle class.” In both Britain and America, the term covers nearly everybody. In the age of possibility that beckons, one thing that apparently will not be possible is a policy that imposes a fiscal burden on this group. Not content to rule out policies (however worthy) that impose a cost on most taxpayers, Clinton and Blair often go further, saying that their main fiscal goal is to improve the position of the middle class. Since “the rich” are a tiny proportion of taxpayers, the only thing this could mean in practice would be an improvement relative to the position of the poor–an extraordinary idea for supposedly left-of-center leaders, however modern or forward-looking, to adopt.

Any party expecting its program to be taken seriously as a left-of-center alternative to conservatism must surely propose one of two things: Either it must promise to increase in the aggregate the quantity and quality of public services (and the taxes needed to pay for them), or else it must promise, within an unchanged total of taxes and spending, to redirect the flow of resources so that the less well-off get more. In either case, stripped to its essentials, a left-of-center program seeks to help the less prosperous at the expense of everybody else (i.e., at the expense of the middle class).

It may well be, as conservatives would argue, that policies of this kind are a bad idea for one reason or another. Perhaps they would fail. Conceivably, they would fail so badly that they would even make the intended beneficiaries worse off. This is exactly the argument that the left should be having with the right, just as in the old days. For the moment, most strikingly in America and Britain, the left has simply capitulated. In order to win power, it promises to make no difference. Clinton and Blair won’t do anything a conservative wouldn’t. But at least they care.