The Third Way's Second Chance

SANTIAGO – Remember Tony Blair and Bill Clinton’s Third Way? It is back. The faces and names have changed, but the idea that governments can – and should – combine social-democratic values and modern liberal economics has returned to center stage.

At a June 2000 gathering of leaders in Berlin, hosted by Germany’s then-Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, the Third Way seemed like the way of the future. The gathering was Blair’s brainchild (though he did not attend because his wife had just had a child). But Clinton held forth eloquently on how new technologies could help to solve age-old social ills. Leaders from Sweden and New Zealand argued that you could make the state both leaner and more effective. And the Third Way could travel well to what was once called the Third World, claimed South Africa’s Thabo Mbeki, Brazil’s Fernando Henrique Cardoso, and Chile’s Ricardo Lagos (I was present as part of Lagos’s delegation.)

Sadly, it was not to last. The sound bites about progressive governance did not grow easily into a lasting political philosophy. Al Gore traded Clintonomics for traditional populism and was defeated by George W. Bush. Social democrats and their allies lost power in several European countries. The war in Iraq and the global financial crisis of 2008-2009 caused a backlash against some of the policies advocated by Third Way leaders.

Fast forward to the present. Italy’s 39-year-old socialist prime minister, Matteo Renzi, is often described as his country’s last hope. He is promising (though not quite yet delivering) deep labor-market and fiscal reforms. After his electoral victory, Renzi received early kudos from Blair himself, who claimed that “Matteo has the dynamism, creativity, and toughness to succeed.”