Lessons from Clinton’s 'third way'

Polls show that most Americans will blame House Republicans — not President Obama or congressional Democrats — if Speaker John Boehner and his Tea Party-driven caucus continue to insist that the president either defund ObamaCare or shut down the federal government.

However, before Democrats celebrate prematurely, they should recognize a potential trap that former President Clinton was able to avoid after the two government shutdowns in late 1995 and early 1996. Clinton refused to go along with demands for substantial budget cuts by the Newt Gingrich-led Republican Congress, leading to the two shutdowns. And he came out way ahead politically and was reelected in 1996 by a substantial margin. 

In his must-read book, due to be published in the next several months, The New Democrats and the Return to Power, Al From, founder and leader of the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), explains how Clinton used the DLC’s “New Democrat” policy prescriptions to trump Gingrich and House Republicans. 

Gingrich had calculated that the House GOP would win the old frame of Democrats as “pro-big government, deficits and higher taxes” and Republicans as “pro-small government, balanced budgets and lower taxes.” But Clinton had a different frame in mind. Gingrich had miscalculated — he forgot that Clinton had chaired the DLC from 1990 to 1991 and won the presidency in 1992 running largely on the DLC’s New Democrat “third way” approach, and that he meant what he said and said what he meant. 

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On Nov. 13, 1995, the day that Clinton vetoed the Republican congressional budget resolution, leading to the first government shutdown, the president delivered a speech to the DLC convention and established the classic DLC “third way” frame.

“I think it is very important that you understand that this great debate in Washington is not, is not, about balancing the budget,” he said. “It is about balancing our values as a people. ... Five months ago, I proposed a balanced budget that eliminates the deficit, cut hundreds of wasteful and outdated programs, but preserves Medicare and Medicaid, invests in education, technology, and research, protects the environment and defends and strengthens working families. And it maintains the ability of the United States to lead the world toward peace and freedom and democracy and prosperity. My budget reflects those values and fulfills our interests. The Republican congressional budget simply does not.”

About two weeks later, in his 1996 State of the Union speech, Clinton reiterated the New Democrat message and cemented his political victory over the defeated House Republicans, when he famously announced to the nation: 

“The era of big government is over.” 

As From writes in a draft manuscript of his forthcoming book: “Clinton had shifted the debate. It was no longer about the Republicans trying to force Clinton to accept a balanced budget. The showdown had allowed Clinton to convince the American people that he was indeed for a balanced budget, a significant part of convincing them he was a ‘different kind of Democrat’ he had promised to be. The debate was now about values and priorities — and Clinton would win that hands down.” 

In 2013, Obama has a chance to follow a similar strategy and philosophical approach. He is right to oppose the House Republicans’ effort to defund his signature legislation, the Affordable Care Act, which I strongly support. But he should also endorse, for the first time, the recommendations of the Simpson-Bowles deficit reduction commission, which won widespread bipartisan support, including from conservative Republican Sens. Tom Coburn (Okla.) and Mike Crapo (Idaho) and progressive Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin (Ill.) and former Sen. Kent Conrad (N.D.).

If the president stakes out this position, he will do more than win decisively the current political battle with House Republicans. He will be honoring the moral obligation to substantially reduce the unsustainable $16 trillion debt, which currently represents the highest percentage of gross domestic product since just after World War II.

It is the right strategy and politics. It is also the right thing to do for our children, our grandchildren, our great-grandchildren and our country. 


Davis served as special counsel to former President Clinton and is principal in the Washington D.C. law firm of Lanny J. Davis & Associates, in which he specializes in crisis management. He is special counsel to Dilworth Paxson of Philadelphia and the author of a recently published book, Crisis Tales: Five Rules for Coping with Crises in Business, Politics, and Life