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In U.S., Europe, the Left Must Prove It Has Right Stuff to Pursue Change

Suddenly, unexpectedly, the left is back.

In France, voters on June 1 stunningly repudiated the ruling center-right government, sweeping a leftist coalition to control of the National Assembly and installing Socialist Party chief Lionel Jospin as the new prime minister. His victory came only weeks after Tony Blair led Britain’s Labor Party to its most lopsided triumph ever. And before Blair, President Clinton won an easy reelection, just two years after the 1994 congressional sweep seemed to herald a new era of Republican dominance.

The triumphs of these center-left leaders stand as a vivid counterpoint to the 1980s, when the international scene was dominated by larger-than-life conservatives--Ronald Reagan here, Margaret Thatcher in Britain, Helmut Kohl in Germany. Only impervious Kohl hasn’t surrendered his chair to a more leftist successor--and record post-war unemployment in Germany may endanger even his hold on power in elections next year. Across Europe, in fact, most governments now lean left.

Is this a new progressive era? The picture isn’t that simple. Conservatives still hold executive power in France (with President Jacques Chirac) and legislative power in the United States (with the GOP Congress). And compared to a generation ago, in almost all Western countries the center of political debate has moved to the right.

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Many of the conservatives’ recent electoral problems have been idiosyncratic and localized. In France they were hurt by high unemployment; in Britain by scandal and the sense they had held power too long; in the United States by the spectacular miscalculation of shutting down the government. And the left’s advantage may well prove ephemeral: In much of the world, partisan loyalties appear to be loosening in a way that leaves political parties vulnerable to sudden collapse. If the left doesn’t perform, no one would be surprised to see any of these countries turn back right.

Yet more than fickleness or local conditions may explain these reversals for conservatives. Together, they point toward a reluctance of voters in Western democracies to leave their fate solely in the hands of the free market.

The tradition in France and across Europe embraces a larger role for government in regulating the market and redistributing income than in Britain, which in turn accepts a larger government role than the United States. But beginning from those divergent base lines, the common project of conservatism at the century’s end is to reduce the size of the state and its ability to challenge the results of the market. Rep. Dick Armey (R-Texas), the tough-talking House majority leader, pithily captured the right’s credo when he declared: “The market is rational and the government is dumb.”

Especially in the United States and Britain, the conservative critique of taxes and bureaucracy strikes a receptive chord. But voters appear unwilling to follow it as far as Armey’s libertarian logic would take them. Clinton, Blair and Jospin all won election on platforms that affirmed a vigorous role for government in regulating business, providing a social safety net and increasing access to education and training. At a time when the twin revolution of advancing information technology and increased globalization is remaking the world economy, their victories suggest that workers across the industrial West still want government to equip them to ride this wave--and to cushion them if they fall off.

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Where the left divides is on how to pursue those goals. Blair and Clinton (joined by Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi) argue that the left must accept the burden of reforming government and show to swing voters and financial markets alike that it can square government activism with fiscal responsibility. Each is holding a tight rein on spending, and seeking to reform the welfare state, control costs and demand greater individual responsibility. While rejecting the conservative vision of an ever-eroding state, all have bent significantly toward conservative priorities by emphasizing the limits of government’s capacity.

Although he has also pledged not to raise taxes or spending, Jospin rejects that new synthesis. Instead, he calls for a “protector state” intervening even more heavily in the economy to create jobs, shorten the workweek and increase wages. Where Blair and Clinton envision a government “empowering” individuals to adapt to economic change, Jospin suggests arresting the change altogether.

This international squabble finds echoes in the already smoldering struggle for control of the Democratic Party after Clinton. Vice President Al Gore (not surprisingly) places himself in the tracks of Clinton and Blair, trumpeting an agenda of government reform, free trade and education to spur the transition to a new economy; Rep. Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.), aiming at those who feel left behind in the transformation, throws himself across the tracks of globalization and the retrenchment of the welfare state.

This argument generates more heat than light. In any country, there’s an audience for politicians who promise to stop the wheels of change. But no major nation can cut itself off from the world economy--much less stop the advance of computer and communications technology compelling the restructuring of business. Although Europeans may always demand a more expansive welfare state than Americans, resisting reform of the safety net is equally futile on both continents. As the population ages across the West, even the left eventually will be forced to limit spending on pensions and health care for the elderly before its rising cost crowds out funding for everything else.

For traditional leftists in the United States and Europe, the Blair/Clinton approach amounts to surrender in slow motion. But both men understand, in a way their critics do not, that the surest way for the “center-left” to lose voters’ faith is to reflexively resist change--in the economy or government. In a joint news conference with Clinton, Blair had it right when he declared, “1997 is not 1947 or 1937 . . . that’s why . . . the welfare state has to be updated for today’s world.”

The question today isn’t whether government is reformed, but by whose hands. If the left won’t tackle the job--here or in Europe--it will leave open the door for the right to pursue more radical surgery.

Ronald Brownstein’s column appears in this space every Monday.


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