The Breakfast Table

The Third Way vs. Having It Both Ways

Afternoon, Brent,

Thanks for your message. First things first—please call me Tamar. After all, we’re having breakfast—and, effectively, lunch—together all week long. More interesting still, on this at least, we don’t seem to disagree all that much. Maybe we should dine together more often? (As you can see, even though I write about politics, I don’t really relish or even like the battle part of it. It’s sappy, I know—and maybe because I’m a girl, or a rationalist—but I always want people to find common ground and settle on some middling, “third-way” solution.)

That’s why I think of myself as a New Democrat (I’ve also been known to vote liberal Republican)—which I gather you do not like. And as you suggest, it’s what New York’s left-leaning political establishment—Congressmen Jose Serrano and Charles Rangel and the rest—really don’t like about Hillary. Sure, these people are unhappy that she didn’t come to them to kiss their rings and inquire before she took a stand on any issues they claim to care about. But more than that, what they really can’t abide—and you don’t like so much either, I gather?—is that she isn’t going to turn out to be the all-or-nothing, never-compromise, hard-core leftist candidate many people have always expected she would be.

So I should be pleased, right? Well, not so fast. Because I don’t think she’s a New Democrat, either—she’s certainly no credit to the New Democratic movement I’m sometimes drawn to. New Democrat doesn’t just mean political opportunist. It doesn’t mean tacking and trying to have it both ways—as Hillary is indeed trying to do, and her husband has been doing for years now. Unlike these two opportunists and others like them, politicians who truly occupy what’s sometimes called “the vital center” find a way to go beyond ideology with practical, problem-solving positions that borrow from both sides and appeal to voters across the spectrum. When it’s done right, it’s not about hedging. It’s about real political creativity and the much needed balancing of conflicting political interests. (And it usually ends up alienating political regulars on both sides of the aisle.) True enough (I concede in advance), there aren’t many pols out there who actually live up to this standard—but let’s not give the vital center a bad name by pretending that it’s no more than dishonest tacking.

As for Hillary, well, I’m not a big fan of those lefty ideological positions that Rangel, Serrano, et al hoped she would champion, but in the end I would have respected her more for that than for the unprincipled hedging that you so rightly point out is apparently going to be her hallmark. All these years, I thought she was urging Bill to stick to his left-wing guns. But now it turns out she’s the one who’s been arguing all along that the administration should trim and hedge and give voters whatever it is they seem to want. Nancy Reagan’s advice was “Just say no”; Hillary’s is apparently “Just say anything—as long as the public wants to hear it.” It’s going to be a great campaign to watch and write about, but I agree with you—following her is going to make us all dizzy.

Whoops! It’s almost cocktail hour and I’m going on as if it were still breakfast. Let’s talk tomorrow about the two parties’ appeal for minority voters?

Looking forward to it, whatever it is.

All best,