SOLOMON: A Hollow Core at the "Vital Center"

Despite this year's scandalmania, Bill Clinton now appears to be rather entrenched in the White House. A big reason is that he has been very careful to stay near the middle of America's political spectrum.The "vital center" -- a phrase that was dormant for several decades -- became a mantra for Clinton's second term. On Dec. 11, 1996, in his first major policy speech after winning re-election, the president vowed to "forge a coalition of the center." And he called for "a vital American center where there is cooperation across lines of party and philosophy."Appropriately, Clinton delivered the speech to a forum hosted by the Democratic Leadership Council -- a group that has enjoyed plenty of favorable media coverage since he and Al Gore helped to found it in 1985.From the outset, while loudly claiming to speak for America's middle class, the DLC owed its prominence to generous financial support from decidedly upper-class patrons: Arco, Dow Chemical, Georgia Pacific, Martin Marietta, the Petroleum Institute and other denizens of corporate America.As a matter of routine, well-heeled lobbyists flocked to DLC functions. "There's no question you can define `special interest' as our sponsors," the DLC's president, Al From, acknowledged with rare candor. In March 1989, when From's group held its annual conference, nearly 100 lobbyists subsidized the event by paying between $2,500 and $25,000 each. A year later, in the spring of 1990, Clinton began his stint as chair of the DLC.Writing a few weeks ago in The New Democrat, the DLC's magazine, From credited his organization with laying the groundwork for "Third Way politics" that have swept the United States as well as much of Europe and Latin America. "The Third Way's roots are firmly planted in our New Democrat movement," he declared. "Indeed, the Democratic Leadership Council has a rightful claim to paternity."What does all this talk about the "vital center" and the "Third Way" really mean?Amid a geyser of misty rhetoric (for instance, "the Third Way is the worldwide brand name for progressive politics for the Information Age"), Al From supplies a basic clue. "Third Way governments," he explains, "create opportunities, rather than guarantee outcomes." Such buzzwords are common among DLC hotshots and their powerful allies inside the Democratic Party.This year, Mark Penn -- a top DLC pollster and strategist -- rejoiced that "the Democratic Party is moving into the vital center of American politics and away from the political left." He contended that "the views of voters who identify themselves as Democrats today are converging with those of the American electorate as a whole in the vital center of American politics." And, he asserted, "Democratic success lies in advocating a government that provides opportunity, not guarantees."Emphasis on opportunity for all Americans has been central to the jargon of the Clinton presidency. And the news media have loved it.But is "opportunity" sufficient? Even if each person faced the same odds (a far cry from social realities), would we praise a lottery for providing everyone with an "opportunity" to win? What about the losers?Should we idealize a society for providing most people with health care and a roof over their heads -- even if millions of people lack access to medical treatment and many individuals are homeless?Advocates for the vital center and the Third Way are likely to shrug. After all, it's not appropriate to "guarantee outcomes."Huge gaps between rich and poor? Don't bother us about "outcomes." A lot of poverty in our midst? Well, everybody has an opportunity to succeed. Scant regulatory curbs on large corporations? Hey, the era of big government is over.Centrist approaches are usually based on power, not equity or justice. Consider some recent words from the author of the 1949 book titled "The Vital Center."Last spring, in an article for Society magazine, Arthur Schlesinger Jr. wrote that the "vital center" phrase in his famous book "refers to the contest between democracy and totalitarianism, not to contests within democracy between liberalism and conservatism, not at all to the so-called `middle of the road' preferred by cautious politicians of our own time."Schlesinger added: "The middle of the road is definitely not the vital center -- it is the dead center."But to most politicians and journalists, the center of power and wealth is the vital center, no matter how hollow it may be for the less fortunate.

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