Altitude is a column by POLITICO founding editor John Harris, offering weekly perspective on politics in a moment of radical disruption.
Bill Clinton and Tony Blair no longer have power, but they still have advice. They perceive plenty of people in need of it.
The needy include progressives in the United Kingdom, where the Labour Party has not had power in a long while, and the United States, where the Democratic Party has power for now but looks likely to lose lots of it in midterm elections this fall. Together, they offered a fitness program of sorts for members of their own parties that they fear are getting badly out of shape.
Clinton urges progressives to rebuild atrophied muscles of persuasion. “I think one of the ways you win elections is by talking straight with people and giving them permission to vote against you,” he explains in the most recent edition of his podcast. In other words, don’t hector and moralize, as though the merits of your position should be self-evident to any decent person. Assume a position of modesty that argues, “If you really disagree with this, then you will go out and take another choice, but here’s why I think it’s better for you.”
Blair urges progressives to rebuild atrophied muscles of self-discipline. For much of the left, Blair said on Clinton’s program, it’s not clear that their main goal is really to win power or wield it: “Its primary purpose is to make itself feel good about itself, right? To convince itself that it’s principled, right? But that is in the end, something that leads you to self-indulgence.” Unless progressives commit to reclaiming the center in “culture wars,” Blair added, they’ll remain vulnerable to “some loose remark from someone” being exploited by the right and will be “hammered day in, day out. That’s just not competent politics.”
A reasonable question: Who cares what these superannuated politicians have to say? A reasonable answer: Even now, a generation after they came to power, Clinton and Blair are still the emblematic representatives of a distinct brand of progressive centrism.
That description is faint praise to some ears, and criticism to others. But this is an apt moment to recall a time when it was invoked unambiguously as a compliment.
Blair’s appearance on Clinton’s podcast marked the 25th anniversary of a then 43-year-old Blair coming to power as prime minister in Britain in May 1997. Shortly after Blair’s victory, Clinton — who at 50 had been inaugurated for his second term a few months before — arrived in London on a working visit. The two leaders held a news conference in the garden of 10 Downing Street in which they held forth with absorbing fluency on the lessons of their dual success.
I was a White House reporter at the time, and the news conference remains one of my vivid memories in six years covering Clinton’s presidency. Most journalists, like many others in the U.S. political class, tended to vow Clinton’s centrist “New Democrat” image through the prism of narrow political messaging. By these lights, it was essentially a set of defensive tactics, designed to reassure voters that Clinton was not a more traditional interest-group liberal like Walter Mondale or Michael Dukakis.
Blair’s victory, and seeing two energetic young leaders standing side-by-side with obvious mutual respect, suddenly made plain how inadequate it was to view Clintonism as merely slick salesmanship and tactical improvisation. It was plainly something more — a set of ideas about how progressives should govern in a modern economy and an increasingly interconnected world. Blair’s election, in combination with the successes of similar politicians in other countries, clearly indicated these ideas were on the march globally.
The brand of politics Blair and Clinton stood for — now often called “Third Way,” a phrase then not yet in vogue in the United States — started with a critique of the alternatives. The problem with traditional liberalism was that it was stuck in a rut — more responsive to its interest groups than the broader public interest, insufficiently attuned to the imperative of economic growth. The problem with the post-Reagan, post-Thatcher right was that it had turned brutish and backward-looking — enmeshed in racial and sexual prejudice, indifferent to the challenge of expanding opportunity to people who didn’t already count as society’s winners.
These shortcomings meant that an energetic, disciplined politics of the center was the best hope for creating a humane, rational, prosperous global order in the 21st century. Expanded global trade, technological disruption and a burgeoning, super-wealthy entrepreneurial class could be good things — so long as government protected the most vulnerable and expanded opportunity with targeted assistance in education, childcare and healthcare.
In the 1997 news conference, Clinton referred to “the vital center,” while Blair invoked the “radical center.” Both men invoke precisely the same terms in the new podcast. While both leaders are sometimes portrayed as expedient and constantly calibrating politicians, what’s striking is the degree of consistency in their worldviews across a quarter-century. What’s different is that in 1997, just on the brink of the 21st century, Blair and Clinton were describing the world as a fundamentally hopeful place. Now we have had nearly a generation of real-world experience with that century — marked by war, climate change, virulent nationalism, tribalistic identity politics and a malevolent media ecosystem trafficking in misinformation, commercialized contempt and nihilism. In the podcast, even natural optimists like Clinton and Blair strike notably downbeat notes.
Their conversation invites two questions: Why has that brand of politics, in the ascendancy in 1997, spent most of the years since then in retreat? And is there any relevance to their examples now?
The first answer, of course, is that they paid the price for policy and personal misjudgments. Within months of the Downing Street news conference, Clinton was engulfed in scandal. He survived that, but his ability to challenge his own party and lead a new centrist coalition was sharply limited. Blair’s robust support for the Iraq War decimated his popularity and gave him culpability in one of the great policy debacles of this generation. The Clinton-Blair brand of centrism, which cheered free markets and was friendly with Wall Street, was damaged further by the 2008 financial crisis.
Other problems shadow their desire to assume the elder statesman role. Blair was for a time the most unpopular former prime minister in modern British history. He embarked on what many admirers regarded as a disappointing lifestyle of lucrative corporate consultancies and tabloid gossip about a jet-setting social life. Clinton lowered his public profile as the #MeToo movement put accounts of his itinerant past in a more glaring light, and prompted stories about his ties to Jeffrey Epstein, who loaned Clinton his airplane.
But both men seem eager to reclaim their political voices. Clinton in September will revive annual summits of the Clinton Global Initiative, which has been dormant for years after he suspended it during Hillary Rodham Clinton’s 2016 presidential run. Blair has been evangelizing for his brand of centrist policy responses to issues ranging climate change to right-wing populism through his Institute for Global Change.
More so than Clinton, Blair seems eager to confront politicians he disagrees with. Of his Labour Party’s problems, Blair rasped: “We suffered the last election defeat, which was terrible. And I say [to fellow progressives] ‘What makes you think if they’ve been voting conservative for three elections, what they want is a really left-wing labor party, when they’ve been rejecting a moderately left-wing party? ’”
Blair told Clinton the problem isn’t lack of demand for centrist politics, but that few people are defining the center in a compelling way: “We are not splitting the difference between left and right, but you’re trying to understand the way the world’s changing and apply eternal values to a changing situation. I think that’s the best position for progressive politics. And I think it usually wins when it offers that.”
Can this brand of politics compete in a world where extremism often seems like a rational response to the dysfunction and despair of conventional politics? The answer, as ever, is compared to what.
Clinton borrowed his phrase “The Vital Center” from a landmark book of that name in 1949 by the liberal historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. Late in his life, Schlesinger appreciated the recognition but was uneasy about the association. His “Vital Center” did not refer to U.S. domestic politics, and it did not mean “middle of the road” politics. It meant the robust liberal alternative to fascism totalitarianism on the right and communist totalitarianism on the left.
Something like that context exists today, far more than in 1997. From Russia flows a backward-looking vision, based on nostalgia for a lost age that Vladimir Putin and his admirers believe can be reclaimed through violent nationalism. From China flows a futuristic vision of a new world empire in which technology can be turned into an instrument of surveillance and state control. What both visions have in common is the crushing of individual liberty, free press and the right to dissent. In the center between those two are Western democracies. For the moment, they are hardly vital, but instead are snarling, demoralized, dysfunctional.
Blair said he remains optimistic because of “human spirit — which I believe is basically benign, even though people can of course behave very badly — that human spirit is what will us through ultimately, but it needs agency. It needs us to get behind it and do it.”
Blair and Clinton may be damaged messengers, but that message is still valuable. The alternative to the vital center is the dead center — and an increasingly ugly future.
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