Blair urges progressives to rebuild the atrophied muscles of self-discipline. For much of the left, Blair said of Clinton’s platform, it’s not clear whether their primary goal is really to gain power or wield it: “His primary goal is to feel good about himself. skin, right? To convince himself that it’s principled, isn’t it? But it’s ultimately something that brings you to self-indulgence. Unless progressives pledge to reclaim the center in “culture wars,” Blair added, they will remain vulnerable to “a vague remark from someone” being exploited by the right and will be “hammered day after day. This is simply not competent policy.
A reasonable question: who cares what these retired politicians have to say? A reasonable answer: Even now, a generation after coming to power, Clinton and Blair are still the iconic representatives of a distinct brand of progressive centrism.
This description is light praise for some ears and criticism for others. But it’s a fitting time to recall a time when it was unambiguously invoked as a compliment.
Blair’s appearance on the Clinton Podcast marked the 25th anniversary of Blair, then 43, coming to power as British Prime Minister 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 for a working visit. The two leaders held a press conference in the garden of 10 Downing Street during which they expounded with absorbing ease on the lessons of their double success.
I was a White House reporter at the time, and the press conference remains one of my most vivid memories in six years of covering Clinton’s presidency. Most journalists, like many others in the American political class, tended to proclaim Clinton’s centrist “New Democrat” image through the prism of a narrow political message. In those 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 stand side by side with evident mutual respect, suddenly showed how inadequate it was to view Clintonism as mere skillful selling and tactical improvisation. It was clearly something more – a set of ideas for how progressives should govern in a modern economy and an increasingly interconnected world. Blair’s election, combined with the successes of similar politicians in other countries, made it clear that these ideas were in motion around the world.
The political brand espoused by Blair and Clinton – now often referred to as the “Third Way”, a phrase then not yet in vogue in the United States – began with a critique of alternatives. The problem with traditional liberalism was that it was stuck in a rut – more responsive to its interest groups than to the broader public interest, insufficiently geared to the imperative of economic growth. The problem with the post-Reagan and post-Thatcher right was that it had become brutal and backward – entangled in racial and gender bias, unconcerned with the challenge of expanding opportunities to people who did not already count as the winners of the society.
These shortcomings meant that a forceful and disciplined policy from the center was the best hope for creating a humane, rational and prosperous world order in the 21st century. Expanding global trade, technological disruption and a burgeoning, super-rich entrepreneurial class could be good things – as long as the government protects the most vulnerable and expanded opportunities with targeted aid in the areas of education, child care and health care.
In the 1997 press 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 the two leaders are sometimes described as fast-paced and constantly calibrated politicians, what is striking is how consistent their worldviews are over a quarter of a century. What’s different is that in 1997, just on the brink of the 21st century, Blair and Clinton described the world as a fundamentally hopeful place. Now we’ve had nearly a generation of real-world experience with this century – marked by war, climate change, virulent nationalism, tribal identity politics and a malevolent media ecosystem trafficking in disinformation, contempt commercialized and nihilism. In the podcast, even natural optimists like Clinton and Blair strike particularly pessimistic notes.
Their conversation invites two questions: why has this type of politics, in full swing 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 political and personal misjudgments. A few months after the Downing Street press conference, Clinton was engulfed in scandal. He survived this, but his ability to challenge his own party and lead a new centrist coalition was severely limited. Blair’s strong support for the war in Iraq decimated his popularity and made him guilty of one of the great political debacles of this generation. The Clinton-Blair brand of centrism, which encouraged free markets and was friendly to Wall Street, was further damaged by the 2008 financial crisis.
Other issues cloud their desire to take on the role of former statesman. Blair was for some time the most unpopular former prime minister in modern British history. He embarked on what many admirers saw as a disappointing lifestyle of lucrative corporate advice and tabloid gossip about a jet-setting social life. Clinton lowered her public profile as the #MeToo movement put stories of her traveling past in a more glaring light and sparked stories about her ties to Jeffrey Epstein, who lent Clinton his plane.
But both men seem keen to reclaim their political voice. In September, Clinton will relaunch the annual summits of the Clinton Global Initiative, which had been dormant for years after suspending it during Hillary Rodham Clinton’s 2016 presidential run. Blair has evangelized for his brand of centrist policy responses to issues ranging from climate change to right-wing populism through his Institute for Global Change.
More than Clinton, Blair seems eager to confront politicians he disagrees with. Of his Labor Party’s problems, Blair complained: “We suffered the last electoral defeat, which was terrible. And I say [to fellow progressives] “What makes you think that if they’ve been voting Conservative for three elections, what they want is a really left-wing Labor party, when they reject a moderately left-wing party?” ‘”
Blair told Clinton that the problem is not the lack of demand for centrist politics, but that few people define center convincingly: “We don’t divide the difference between left and right, but you try to understand how the world changes and apply eternal values to a changing situation. I think that’s the best position for progressive politics. And I think he usually wins when he offers that.
Can this form of politics compete in a world where extremism often appears as a rational response to the dysfunction and desperation of conventional politics? The answer, as always, is compared to what.
Clinton borrowed his phrase “The Vital Center” from a 1949 landmark book of the same name by liberal historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. Towards the end of his life, Schlesinger enjoyed the recognition but was apprehensive about the association . His “Vital Center” did not refer to the domestic politics of the United States, and it did not mean the “in-between” politics. It meant the robust liberal alternative to fascist totalitarianism on the right and communist totalitarianism on the left.
Something like this context exists today, much more so than in 1997. From Russia flows a retrograde vision, based on nostalgia for a lost era which, according to Vladimir Putin and his admirers, can be won back by violent nationalism. . From China stems a futuristic vision of a new global empire in which technology can be transformed into an instrument of state surveillance and control. What the two visions have in common is the crushing of individual liberty, the free press and the right to dissent. In the middle between these two are the Western democracies. For now, they are hardly vital, but on the contrary surly, demoralized, dysfunctional.
Blair said he remained optimistic because of “the human spirit – which I believe is basically benign, although of course people can behave very badly – that human spirit is what will get us through in the end account, but it needs agency. We need to stick to ourselves 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.