When former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton criticized her old boss's foreign policy last week, many saw it as her first step toward distancing herself from President Barack Obama in preparation for her presidential run in 2016.
But if read closely, her words don't signal something new — they signal something old: Third Way policy and the politics of triangulation. That's both good news and bad news for Americans.
Here's what most people are paying attention to in that interview with The Atlantic:
"Great nations need organizing principles, and ‘Don't do stupid stuff' is not an organizing principle," she said.
That's true enough, but she says far, far more in her next statement.
"You know, when you're down on yourself, and when you are hunkering down and pulling back, you're not going to make any better decisions than when you were aggressively, belligerently putting yourself forward," she said. "One issue is that we don't even tell our own story very well these days."
Let's look at that closely. She's charting a Third Way here; she rejects the "lead from behind" doctrine of Obama and many on the left, and she rejects the neo-conservative approach of nation-building. She's not explicit about what that Third Way actually is, but that's not the point. It never was when President Bill Clinton employed the tactic, either.
Bill Clinton faced a divided government not unlike what Obama faces now — and presumably, Hillary Clinton could face if she won the presidency in 2016. His approach was a "triangulation" strategy that led to some conservative wins and some progressive wins.
In a June 2000 interview with PBS, Clinton advisor Dick Morris explained the strategy, and how it applied to issues such as welfare reform.
"From the left, take the idea that we need day care and food supplements for people on welfare," he said. "From the right, take the idea that they have to work for a living, and that there are time limits. But discard the nonsense of the left, which is that there shouldn't be work requirements; and the nonsense of the right, which is you should punish single mothers. Get rid of the garbage of each position, that the people didn't believe in; take the best from each position; and move up to a third way. And that became a triangle, which was triangulation."
The good news here is that a resurgence in Third Way politics could be an answer to the divide that separates many in our nation. Polls show that Americans are more partisan than ever. Perhaps a pragmatic, Third Way approach could be the bridge we need.
The bad news, of course, is that as practiced by the Clintons, Third Way politics was devoid of principle. It's poll-driven in a way we've not seen from the current White House (which ignores the unpopularity of its actions).
And polls make for bad long-term policies.
The political divide in America is, at its base, philosophical.
It's about what government should be, as much as what government should do.
The return of Third Way politics won't answer any of these questions.