Democratic Convention 2008

Everything New Democrat Is Old Again

The Third Way has become the Third Rail, but have the Dems really abandoned the free market?

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"The extreme philosophy that has defined his party for more than 25 years, a philosophy we never had a real chance to see in action until 2001, when the Republicans finally gained control of both the White House and Congress. Then we saw what would happen to America if the policies they had talked about for decades were implemented."

That was former President Bill Clinton speaking to the Democratic National Convention last night, condemning John McCain, but also curiously turning his back on his own glory days, when Clinton himself succeeded by embracing more than a few elements of that extreme philosophy.

For those of us who look back fondly on the economic vigor of the Clinton era, the change is jarring. How does supportive husband Clinton now define the triumph of the kind of fiscal conservatism President Clinton once mastered? Read on:

"They took us from record surpluses to an exploding national debt; from over 22 million new jobs down to 5 million; from an increase in working family incomes of $7,500 to a decline of more than $2,000; from almost 8 million Americans moving out of poverty to more than 5 and a half million falling into poverty—and millions losing their health insurance."

Standard convention boilerplate, but it carries a strong message: If even Bill Clinton, the gold standard of "third way" politicians, is trading in classic Democratic Party populism, it really is over for the what used to be called New Democrats.

To get a sense of how things have changed since the New Democrats charged into the 1990s promising to ditch the party's economic-interventionist baggage, here's an interesting convention factoid. The New Democratic Network, a "moderate" group started by Simon Rosenberg and sporadically affiliated with Howard Dean's "Democratic wing of the Democratic Party," has held six high-profile events, on topics ranging from "new politics" to climate change to "true patriotism." By comparison, the Democratic Leadership Council, the leading New Democrat think tank of the Clinton era, hosted one—and that was on rebuilding infrastructure, a classic big-government interest.

Now the New Democratic Network isn't calling for wage and price controls, nor did the DLC in its heyday show any real interest in weaning the party from its dependence on labor and regulation. (Libertarians with long memories may also shudder to remember Clinton's decidedly old-school views on the Fourth Amendment, the drug war, and the death penalty.) And you can't blame the Democrats for trying to cash in on President Bush's mid-20 percent approval rating. The Democratic Party these days is not in the hands of left-leaning ideologues but left-leaning utilitarians.

But there's a palpable sense of relief in the air in Denver this week. Finally, proof of what we knew all along: The free market really doesn't work! What joy and excitement the convention has generated has rested largely on three points: the need to replace Bush's foreign policy with "cooperation" and "good judgment"; Barack Obama's inspiring biography; and the nation's purported loss of faith in deregulation and open markets.

For all the vacuousness of Hillary Clinton's references to "green collar jobs," "universal, high-quality, affordable health care," an end to "dead-end jobs" and so on, her speech was a reminder that the Clintons never abandoned their commitment to interventionist government (and a reason to be glad she didn't get the nomination).

There are other reasons to worry about utilitarians. Two executives in the state of California, one Democratic and one Republican, reveal the limits of post-ideological politics. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger rode into office on promises of performance review, zero-base budgeting, and the like, but he is now pretty much guaranteed to leave behind a legacy of new regulations and a massive health care overhaul that failed as spectacularly as Hillary Clinton and Ira Magaziner's universal health care plan in the 1990s. In Los Angeles, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa brought his own raft of nuts-and-bolts ideas into office (repairing 35,000 potholes, expanding gang prevention, and most amusingly, planting a million trees in the bone-dry city), but his agenda too has gotten lost in a thicket of union strong-arming and his own personal vapidity.

Still, none of these people are running for president. Barack Obama is, and one of the things to watch for in his acceptance speech this evening will be how much lip service he pays to unfettered liberty in economic, political, and personal life. It would be foolish to hope for much, but don't underestimate Obama's Zelig-like ability to reflect back the image the viewer wants to see.

That is to say, expect any calls for re-regulation to be preceded by lip service about the power and benefits of trade and markets. It may not be sincerely meant, but it's nice that the Democrats feel compelled to offer it. Obama's rhetoric about fiscal responsibility and making the rich pay their fair share has been balanced by a reality about how an economy works. During an endorsement interview I attended early this year, he spoke about how his path had brought him into circles of wealthy people, and acknowledged that overburdening the rich diminishes opportunities for the poor.

The New Democrats are finished. In their place there appears to be a new breed of Democrat, less driven by a vision of dumping leftist junk from the party's agenda, but benefiting from a nearly two-decade period in which the benefits of free markets have become conventional wisdom. That's a change, but it will take more than a good speech to make it one we can all believe in.

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44 responses to “Everything New Democrat Is Old Again

  1. Not staring down the barrel of the small-government rhetoric that won the GOP both houses of Congress has something to do with it. That’s all gone, now. Like a dream that you can’t remember.

    Libertarians have been so screwed over, and now we are invisible. You’d think the Paul success would have done something to restore the fear of limited government, free market types, but not yet.

  2. The Third Way is nothing more than a euphemism for socialism.

  3. The only thing constraining Dems, as it has always been, is that Americans like Free Markets.

    If the dems push to hard they will lose power. Nothing new here.

    I find it ironic that democracy, the very thing cosmotarians detest, is the only thing keeping the left from turning the US into tyranny.

    I could get into how this is a huge conspiracy of how left wingers have infiltrated libertarian circles….but i am more pragmatic. Those who could be suspected of unlibertarian motives are in fact just idiots.

  4. So basically the GOP said they would allow free markets to do their job, didn’t, instead did the opposite, and now we have economic problems. Since they *said* they were going to let free markets be free, they must have done so, and therefore the economic problems are due to free markets. Wow. What a load of trash.

  5. Clinton believed in free markets? WTF? I don’t know what the cosmos are smoking over in the Reason headquarters, but it must be some nasty shit.

  6. Dude, wait. what?

    Cavanaugh is writing for Reason again as a staffer? Or is he just a some-time contributor?

  7. Robbie,

    Which is precisely why the GOP betrayal of its free-market, limited government rhetoric is so awful. It gives the Democrats renewed hope that Americans will accept neo-socialism and new “factual support” that we’ve tried and failed with more libertarian policies. Which, of course, is a bald-faced lie.

  8. How can the democrats “abandon” something they’ve never supported in the first place?

    -jcr

  9. Clinton did play to the middle with some policies and positions that looked and felt “Republican” in response to the GOP dramatically taking over Congress. “The era of big government is over”, NAFTA, etc. But that was Clinton, not the Democratic party. And that was only him when he was forced into that position. Clinton was opportunistic, certainly, but I think that’s all his move to the right signified. Lack of principles isn’t surprising in most politicians, but his lack is not even remotely noteworthy.

  10. A Cavanaugh is a sometimes foodcontributor.

  11. Wow. why are reason staffers trying so hard to find a reason to vote for Obama? Do you really believe that the failed policies he advocates just weren’t given enough of a chance?

  12. I’ll vote Libertarian, but I still think McCain would be far less dangerous than Obama in the White House, mostly because of the current composition of Congress.

  13. So basically the GOP said they would allow free markets to do their job, didn’t, instead did the opposite, and now we have economic problems. Since they *said* they were going to let free markets be free, they must have done so, and therefore the economic problems are due to free markets. Wow. What a load of trash.

    Robbie wins

  14. I’ll vote Libertarian, but I still think McCain would be far less dangerous than Obama in the White House, mostly because of the current composition of Congress.

    Funny how we no longer hear about the virtues of split government here.

    Hey Nick/Matt what happened to split government?

  15. McCain ’08 – Lock that Grid, Baby!

    Or. . .

    McCain ’08 – At least Congress will try to stop my crazy ways!

  16. Pro Liberate-

    What makes you so sure that McCain would be far less dangerous than the Southsider? McCain has spent far longer in the public sector than Obama. Obama did not give GW the green light on the Patriot Act or Iraq. McCain gave us McCain/Feingold. McCain is an inveterate drug warrior. Plus, he’s a cry baby bully coward.

    I don’t like Obama, but if I am to be rational. I must look at the evidence. I must ask, who, in actuality, has caused more harm to the cause of individual liberty. The unequivocal answer is McCain.

  17. It’s funny how people forget how much the left HATED Clinton when he was president for abandoning 90% of the socialist agenda. His administration pushed pretty hard for free trade agreements, and his hard push for NAFTA when most of his party was against it was risky. Welfare reform was also passed under his aegis, again with wailing and gnashing of teeth from lefty Dems.

    Now, obviously some of this was opportunistic, faced as he was with a Congress run by the other party. But it happened nonetheless, as did the famed “The era of big government is over” speech.

    Then there was Bush. Talk about the era of big government.

  18. libertymike,

    Well, for one thing, I went to law school in Chicago. I know the town. I know its politicians. No way that the Manchurian Candidate can compare to that kind of corruption.

    Besides, McCain’s got to get past a Democratic Congress (most likely). Obama will be able to go on a socialistic spending spree if he wants.

    To be clear, I think both are HORRIBLE candidates, albeit for different reasons. It’s a sad commentary on us indeed that we can’t nominate better qualified (and more principled) individuals.

    Brian24,

    That’s how I remember it. I saw environmentalists protesting Gore in Chicago (yes, you read that correctly–they felt that he was a traitor to the cause), and the Democrats in Congress were none too fond of the administration when I had my fellowship at the White House in 1995. Not that you had to see these things in person–that speech is a great example as is the support Clinton gave NAFTA. Talk about a change up!

  19. The current crop of Dems have not been much of an opposition party. They may hiss and scream a little when the Executive enters the room and yells “Hup!”, then Congress rolls over, buries its head under the pillows, and sticks its ass in the air…..just one more time.

  20. His administration pushed pretty hard for free trade agreements, and his hard push for NAFTA

    I see that you bought the line that NAFTA is a free trade agreement.

    -jcr

  21. when I had my fellowship at the White House in 1995

    Whoah, now it sounds like you are the Manchurian Candidate.

  22. Pro Liberate-

    Off topic, but as I see that you went to law school and are presumably a lawyer, what do you think of the jurisprudence that permits a criminal defendant to be convicted soley upon the factfinder’s choosing to draw an adverse inference from circumstantial evidence but where the adverse inference is not inescapable and where the circumstantial evidence could just as easily have yielded a more positive inference?

  23. I see that you bought the line that NAFTA is a free trade agreement.

    Excuse my ignorance, but if it isn’t a free trade agreement, what is it?

  24. Troy-

    John is right. Do you need tens of thousands of pages of legal documents, with a huge bureaucracy created to “enforce” free trade and zillions of exceptions for certain products that are deemed to be protected from competition? Free trade and protectionism are mutually incompatible. Thus, it is a whole lot of rent seeking plus its a lot of make work for lawyers and other transactional thieves who now have a built in gravy train.

  25. NAFTA is far from perfect. The reason it’s a “free trade” agreement is because trade barriers were lower after it was passed than they were before. Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

  26. “Hey Nick/Matt what happened to split government?”

    Maybe they think there should be, you know, some accountability at the f*cking Executive level for the f*ck ups of the past eight years? “Split government” would reward that crap, in 2006 it was a rebuke to that.

  27. what do you think of the jurisprudence that permits a criminal defendant to be convicted soley upon the factfinder’s choosing to draw an adverse inference from circumstantial evidence but where the adverse inference is not inescapable and where the circumstantial evidence could just as easily have yielded a more positive inference?

    Here, in Mohave County, Arizona, that is called business as usual.

    LibertyMike

    I get it, I think. True free trade should be rather simple: get rid of all the rules and let every one sell anything to anyone anywhere. But if you have a 10,000 page agreement, it mocks the concept of free trade. A 10,000 page free trade agreement is an oxymoron. I think we protect out sugar growers, for example.

    Well I at least like the idea of a free trade agreement.

  28. “I see that you bought the line that NAFTA is a free trade agreement.”

    And maybe you bought the line that it would “reduce the trade deficit?” NAFTA is a disaster for this nation and others.

  29. “Well I at least like the idea of a free trade agreement.”

    Do you like the idea of you, as a businessperson here in the states, competing with a businessperson in China who can literally use slave labor (prison labor) in competition with you?

    Hey, think of the savings to the consumer!

  30. If you don’t like Bushonomics, you’re a socialist? This must be a shock for Dr. Paul.

    If Obama becomes President, he will be compelled, to keep the markets happy, to be prudent and tight-fisted and to clean up the Bush deficit. Just like Clinton cleaned up the Reagan-Bush deficit he inherited.

    McCain, on the other hand, will happily make allies in the Democratic Congress to spend money out the wazoo.

  31. “NAFTA is far from perfect. The reason it’s a “free trade” agreement is because trade barriers were lower after it was passed than they were before. Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.”

    Puh-leeze. Don’t be abetting destruction of the lanaguage, fool. “Free trade” is a specific concept available to transmission to people with brains in their heads who can understand plain English. There are solid reasons why the “Free Trade Agreement” is a lie, and you should take it back where you bought it.

  32. Cavanaugh: “For those of us who look back fondly on the economic vigor of the Clinton era,…”

    I am never going to understand what you people are thinking. Consider that the digital technology explosion through the Nineties alone would have required an authentic Stalin to suppress. Only imbeciles credit The Lying Bastard of The Ozark Long March with “the economic vigor”. To see this sort of crap at Reason is fucking outrageous. You ought to be ashamed of yourselves.

  33. Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

    I dont. However, I do acknowledge that the good is the enemy of the perfect.

  34. Oh, and Nafta is a very minor good, if one at all.

  35. Do you like the idea of you, as a businessperson here in the states, competing with a businessperson in China who can literally use slave labor (prison labor) in competition with you?

    Woh, there, Mr. Nice Guy! Hold on. First of all, you’re not going to acknowledge all of the Chinese companies that do not use slave labor? Second, you’re not going to acknowledge that there are American companies that use prison labor?

  36. Wow. why are reason staffers trying so hard to find a reason to vote for Obama?

    Huh? To what statements or actions by one or more reason staffers are you referring?

  37. What makes you so sure that McCain would be far less dangerous than the Southsider?

    He’s less likely to nominate Supreme Court justices who are lefty boneheads who act as if the Constitution means whatever they want.

    He’s not going to push idiocies like comparable worth, which Obama likes.

    He won’t sign a bill eliminating secret ballots for unionization elections, which Obama wants.

    He probably won’t support that huge increase in foreign aid that Obama wants (~$800 billion over ten years).

    He probably won’t support Obama’s mandatory volunteerism thing.

    I’m sure there are other points.

  38. Fuck free markets. Where has the free market in ideas gotten libertarians? Did you catch Bob Barr on Glen Beck? That loathsome little toad (Barr) couldn’t sell sugar to ants. The big satists are winning the day. What am I saying statists? We’re a fucking empire with troops all over the world. And we’re fighting for Libertopia with a boring old fart like Ron Paul and a weird fucker like Bob Barr? Our intellectual shock troops are the morons who post here? Shit! Sadomasochism has more adherents than libertarianism.

  39. DannyK,

    If Obama becomes President, he will be compelled, to keep the markets happy, to be prudent and tight-fisted and to clean up the Bush deficit. Just like Clinton cleaned up the Reagan-Bush deficit he inherited.

    Two questions:

    1) what have you been smoking?

    2) where did you get it?

  40. I don’t like Obama, but if I am to be rational. I must look at the evidence.

    Okay, so let’s do that.

    Obama has one major achievement up on the score board: he has been ranked The Most Liberal Senator. Or maybe Almost The Most Liberal Senator. Anyway he’s hitting up there in the top five band.

    McCain and Obama, oddly enough, are perfect representatives of their own parties.

    The Republicans used to have their rhetoric for free market, if not their principles. Now that they’ve abandoned even the rhetoric, they stand for nothing.

    The Democrats have always been for “Let’s Socialize Everything”. Obama has established himself as a major cheer leader for this principle.

    McCain is a scatter brain imbecile, who’s sole purpose in life is to continuously prove his own man hood. To himself and others for ever and ever amen.

    But Obama’s got principles. He just wants to socialize everything. Everything. With him in charge of it all.

    McCain, lacking any real principles, is somewhat less likely to do lasting, permanent damage.

    That’s how I’d bet on this horse race. Too bad we don’t have a computer simulator that lets up play them both out in advance.

  41. “If Obama becomes President, he will be compelled, to keep the markets happy, to be prudent and tight-fisted and to clean up the Bush deficit”

    Bullshit. Have you read the Obama’s platform? He proposes new entitlement spending and massive expansion to existing entitlement programs. He also calls for the nationalization of a huge part of the economy, health care, and is proposing new onerous regulations on sectors of the market. If this is what you call prudent and tight-fisted, I would hate to see what fiscal irresponsibility looks like in an Obama administration.

  42. I”‘ll vote Libertarian, but I still think McCain would be far less dangerous than Obama in the White House, mostly because of the current composition of Congress”

    I agree. A vote for Obama is also a vote for Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid, Chuck Schumer, John Conyers, Charlie Rangel and all the other far-left nut jobs in charge of Congress. These imbeciles will be given legislative carte-blanche if Obama is elected.

  43. Mr. Nice Guy:

    Do you like the idea of you, as a businessperson here in the states, competing with a businessperson in China who can literally use slave labor (prison labor) in competition with you?

    Firstly, as a US businessman, I wouldn’t be stupid enough to decide that my market niche should be selling lead-painted plastic toys and poisonous toothpaste to K-mart, or hand-sewn $3 soccer balls to Wally-world. Not too much slave-labor (even in China) with Engineering degrees. Ever hear of the concept of specialization increasing production all around?

  44. I live in Chicago. I’m pretty much voting on one issue: don’t let ANYONE from Illinois EVER gain any more power in the federal government than they already have. You have no idea, this place and both parties are just a cesspool of corruption. You don’t want to give us any more influence over your lives.
    No matter whether you like Democrats and hate republicans, you could do not make a bigger mistake.
    Plus, if Obama is elected, I’m afraid Pat Fitzgerald will be quickly ousted, FBI agents investigating corruption reassigned, all all investigations quashed, killing the last hope for my state.

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