The 1980s was a decade of success for the world's conservative politicians. The right team's triple threat of Ronald Reagan in the United States, Margaret Thatcher in Britain, and Helmut Kohl in Germany dominated elections with a basic theme: Government should play a limited role in citizens' lives.
Will the 1990s now be judged by history as the comeback years of global liberals?
In the wake of Gerhard Schrder's victory in German elections Sept. 27, such a conclusion seems possible. The right's old all-stars have now all been replaced by more activist-minded leaders, including Bill Clinton in the US, Tony Blair in Britain, and Mr. Schrder.
But these are not your father's leftists. Tight budgets, global economic competition, and voter expectations make a return to full welfare-state redistribution unlikely, even in Germany.
In fact, Schrder's victory has invigorated discussion about a new kind of global democrat - so-called "Third Way" leaders who mix social compassion with fiscal prudence.
It's a discussion that scandal-plagued President Clinton, whose own record shows the promise and limits of the semi-left approach, welcomes.
"Throughout Europe, you have a variety of younger, new generation, centrist leaders who are presenting a very positive case of what progressive government can do," said White House spokesman Mike McCurry Sept. 28. "I think the president will be delighted if Mr. Schrder chooses to include him in some of the discussions that have begun to emerge about that topic."
The trend to center-leftism is not limited to the US-Britain-Germany trio, as Mr. McCurry pointed out. In France, socialist Lionel Jospin won election as prime minister in 1997 and has cohabited with conservative President Jacques Chirac ever since. In Italy, Romano Prodi's center-left "Olive Tree" coalition has been in office since 1996, bringing ex-Communists,former Christian Democrats, and Greens together.
In Europe, only Spain, Belgium, and Luxembourg now have what might be judged conservative governments.
Turning of political tides
Much of the world trend toward the left may be a natural turning of tides. After years in power, conservatives seemed exhausted. John Major, whose Conservative Party ruled Britain for 18 years, said this week that "politics is a little like a stream. It tends to move on."
In addition, political circumstances are different in different countries. In Germany, the cost of reunification burdened voters and lowered Mr. Kohl's popularity. In France, populist reaction against proposed cuts in social welfare programs, plus clumsy political tactics by Mr. Chirac, helped doom the right.
But some analysts do see a thread running from Mr. Clinton's US victory in 1992, through the rise of Tony Blair and now Social Democrat Schrder.
In all these cases, a new, telegenic party leader promised to be a new kind of center-liberal, one that wouldn't just return to the welfare days of yore.
In the US, Clinton and his fellows at the Democratic Leadership Council coined the sobriquet "New Democrats" to express their break with the Lyndon Baines Johnson-like past. In Britain, Blair and his ministers talk about a "third way" - meaning a path between Thatcherism and the socialism of past Labor party leaders.
Charting a 'third way'
Last week, first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton (and, briefly, her husband), Blair, Italian Prime Minister Prodi, and other world leaders gathered at New York University Law School to jawbone about what "third way" really means.
It was a wonkfest of the first order, with speakers talking earnestly of "paradigm shifts" and other such things, but out of it came a rough consensus on some basic new left principles. They included: fiscal discipline, expanded world trade, and investment in training and other human capital programs, as opposed to redistributive handouts.
In general, the theme seemed to be that the left needed to break with its old egalitarian past and move more toward a vision of an egalitarian society.
"There's definitely a cluster of ideas about the modernization of social democracy which are currently being banded together under this heading," says Stuart White, a professor of political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. "There does seem to be genuine international interest, and some convergence between American, British, and European parties."
Professor White adds that the whole thing is still ambiguous. Critics might call it, less charitably, empty-headed.
"New Democrats" might just as well be called "Republicans Light," say liberal critics. Welfare reform and a balanced budget are Clinton's big accomplishments. Both are achievements a GOP leader might be proud of.
In Britain, Blair has suffered much from critics within his own party, who have hit his promises to keep inflation and taxes low. And in Germany, Schrder's platform was in many ways indistinguishable from Kohl's by the time the election arrived, say critics.