The Breakfast Table

The Second Third Way

Dear EJ,

I agree it’s good news about Washington mayoral flap.

On another language question–The Third Way. It’s interesting to see the phrase get new political currency. What exactly is a Third Way anyway? I came across the original Third Way (along with “The German Question” and other now-extinct phraseology) in my first job at the Wall Street Journal. I worked on the foreign desk reading BBC transcripts of press stories from East Bloc countries. The headlines had a wonderful Cold War style to them: “No Growth Problem in Comecon, Honecker Notes.” Or, this one, charmingly verbless: “Importance of Brezhnev’s Crimea Meetings”–Tanjug, in English, via BBC.

In 1983, Moscow wouldn’t let the Wall Street Journal set up a permanent bureau in the Soviet Union because the Journal was too provocatively capitalist. (It was also a time when a reporter could dial a number and a little man in plastic gloves would appear to change the ribbon on his or her typewriter.) Anyhow, the paper tried to cover some of what was happening in the East Bloc from these transcripts.

In those BBC transcripts, the “The Third Way” was something that appeared in the context of productivity rates of Yugoslavian work teams. The phrase was the sister to another, “The Third World”–both came out of the nonaligned movement. Advocating a Third Way was a bid by India, Yugoslavia, et al. to capture political ground between the froth-mouthed West and the bad communists. The Third Way turned out to be a very powerful tool in some places, for example the UN, where the Third Way coalition rules to this day.

People say that today’s Third Way phrase is not the same. But I see one similarity: modern Third Way advocates also want to capture political ground. Clinton, when he’s in his “big government is over” mode, wants to use ideas that have been traditionally Republican. He can’t concede though that Democratic ideas are wrong and Republican ones are right. So he says these ideas come from the “Third Way” category. When he and Gore are not in their “big government is over” mode, which they certainly weren’t with this budget, the Third Way lingo is also convenient. It gives new clothing to bad outmoded ideas. Even Clinton and Gore don’t want to be caught saying “government expansion is good.” So they say “it’s time for managed growth.” Ditto for Blair, Schroeder.

Republicans do this too. I’m not so happy about “compassionate conservatism,” which we’re hearing about today from them. Maybe that’s the Republican equivalent of the Third Way. When they add the phrase “compassionate,” they imply that conservatism by itself isn’t compassionate. No reason to concede that though!