Who's on Third? Finding America's Third Way
January 4, 2000
by Ryan Streeter
December 27, 1999
As the presidential race takes shape, there is a lot of talk about the "Third Way." This course between the unfairness of the market and the inefficiency of government, Bill Clinton's alleged policy bedrock, seems to be losing definition among the 2000 hopefuls.
Al Gore claims to be the New Democrat candidate, but as he runs to the left to take old "Second Way" support from Bill Bradley, many commentators think his "New Republican" opponent, George W., stands more squarely on the Third Way path. Pat Buchanan has even labeled his proposed foreign policy a "new Third Way," despite its irrelevance to Third Way ideas.
This is more than political posturing. Over the past decade, Americans have increasingly expressed support for Third Way themes. A free market should be tempered with compassion, individualism with community, they say. Tapping into these sentiments serves a candidate well.
At the recent Democratic Leadership Council gala as well as the "progressive governance" summit in Italy, Clinton celebrated the Third Way "credo of opportunity, responsibility, and national community," which he claims has guided his administration through a decade of the tripled Dow and of welfare reform.
But as the Dow surges and former welfare recipients assume responsibility for working, we are faced with the problem of growing economic inequality and, perhaps more important, the widening skills and education gap it signals. If ever there was a third way topic, it is this one.
In the world's wealthiest nation, the death rate of the poorest citizens is the same as that of the world's poorest nations, despite higher incomes and consumption rates. And our working poor are not well-served by the market alone or government alone when it comes to acquiring the skills they need to advance out of poverty over time.
In the face of such problems, the overly-simplistic focus on opportunity, responsibility, and community will no longer do. A "real" Third Way will focus on results, one of its guiding, yet under-emphasized, themes all along. It will place a premium on accountability for preparing our children and the less fortunate for lives of opportunity.
Welfare reform, perhaps the greatest accomplishment of the Clinton administration and the 104th Congress, provides an example of how standards of accountability can fuse compassion with high performance. The most successful reform efforts are in states that have integrated former welfare recipients into the workplace by partnering imaginatively with businesses and nonprofit organizations.
More than just reducing welfare rolls, good performance is helping people overcome barriers to personal fulfillment and responsibility-key elements in successful long-term reform. Service providers that do this well are (or should be) rewarded, whether they are government agencies, private companies, or faith-based nonprofits. In localities where such performance practices are in place, though they are few, better performance and better care for human needs go hand in hand.
The test of future Third Way leaders will not be in their rhetoric of "opportunity, responsibility, and community." It will be how well they enforce accountability in realizing these goals.
British New Labour leaders have provided a better example than their American counterparts of how this process may be started. They set up a "Social Exclusion Unit" not only to address issues related to inequality but also to conduct continual reviews of government performance. And the Department for Education and Employment opens schools to public criticism by posting performance results on its web site.
In his speeches about schools, social services, and government performance, Al Gore often talks about "accountability for results" and "high standards." But it is not clear if he means anything more than the introduction of new regulations that increase the time it takes to fill out reporting requirements but do not penalize for poor performance.
Bush is more to the point in his charter school proposal that would make schools accountable both to parents and their community. While the government provides funding and some basic standards, schools must satisfy parents' expectations. Schools would also face possible competition from other groups in a community that could start their own school if the existing ones did not satisfy them.
This Third Way scenario would set in place a market-like "system of accountability" rather than additional regulations. It remains to be seen whether this emphasis on performance will permeate Bush's other proposals.
Senator Mary Landrieu (D-LA) recently encouraged her New Democrat colleagues "to talk more about accountability," by which, she said, she meant not more federal control but the "acceleration of accountability programs that can be developed at the local levels and state levels."
For an American mainstream that daily labors under high performance expectations, as well as those whom opportunity has left behind, a third way bent on producing results may be the only way.
Ryan StreeterRyan Streeter is Vice President of Civic Enterprises, LLC, a public policy development firm in Washington, DC. Streeter was a research fellow of the Welfare Policy Center at Hudson Institute from 1998-2001.