First Ronald Reagan, then Margaret Thatcher, now Helmut Kohl. The heroic age - the age of the outsize, unswerving leaders who brought victory to the last great global conflict of the 20th century - is over. Now it is President Clinton, Tony Blair and Schroeder, as in Gerhard Schroeder, the newly elected chancellor of Germany.

The old guard's exit was by no means as swift and unsentimental as Britain's rejection of Winston Churchill less than two months after Germany surrendered in World War II. But the what-have-you-done-for-me-lately message is the same. The three Western countries most instrumental in winning the Cold War have turned out the hard-line parties that won it.And turned toward . . . what? Clinton, Blair and Schroeder represent a new generation, a willingness to experiment ("the courage to change" - Clinton '92), and the promise of a kinder, gentler capitalism. That should be explanation enough. But for Clinton and Blair and the intellectuals who flatter them, that won't do. Vanity demands that they be more than just clever, adaptive politicians. They must be leaders of a heretofore unrecognized world-historical movement.

What is it? We'll get to that. First, all great movements must have a name. In this century of isms, an eponymous ism - Clintonism, say - would have been nice. Unfortunately that word is not available, having already and forever entered the lexicon as "a lie wrapped in a hair-splitting half-truth, as in `I did not inhale.' "

The movement has instead been dubbed "The Third Way." And Tony Blair in a recent philosophical gem (in The Washington Post) titled, "Third Way, Better Way," explains what it is. Third Way means navigating "beyond an old Left preoccupied by state control, high taxation and producers' interests and a new laissez-faire right championing narrow individualism and a belief that free markets are the answer to every problem."

Now, one-half of this formulation is pure invention. No one believes that free markets are the answer to every problem. Conservatism holds simply that free markets are a better guide than government, though government has a crucial role in maintaining both the rule of law and a social safety net.

Blair is right, however, about the Left. The problem for the Left is this: The end of the Cold War marks the collapse not just of communism but of socialism. For a hundred years, socialism was the alternative in the democratic West to free-market capitalism. Blair's own Labor Party, for example, stood for the pre-eminence of government, for nationalized industry, for extraordinary social regulation and for massive taxation to support it all.

It proved an unmitigated disaster. And when Reagan and Thatcher proved the revitalizing effect of rolling it back through privatization, deregulation and lower taxation, the rout was complete. No one believes in socialism anymore. What was the Left to do?

Transform socialism into social conscience and compassion - deployed, of course, with flexibility - producing "a new balance between rights and duties" (Blair, again).

Sounds great. But does it mean anything? Can you give us an example? Sure, says Blair: "reforming welfare to make it a pathway into work where possible."

This is an idea of the Left? In the United States, Republicans rammed welfare reform down the throat of a Third Way president who, on the advice of Dick Morris, signed the bill because he thought it might otherwise cost him the election.

Now that welfare reform is working, conservatives are delighted that Clinton is taking credit for it. But it shows that Third Way ("triangulation" as Clinton-Morris called it) is simply the Left coming around to the social policy of the Right - in this case, helping the poor not by perpetuating a system of handouts but by encouraging and, yes, forcing people into the dignity of work - without the courage to admit it.

What this century has taught us is that there is no Third Way. With socialism dead, there remains but a single model for achieving both freedom and prosperity. That model, which has become universal, consists of a vibrant free market, unfettered as much as pos-sible but buttressed by a demo-crat-ic state that enforces contracts and provides social protection.

What does Clinton's Third Way stand for? His party is today reduced to launching an election-eve jihad over an $80 billion tax cut. Over five years. That's $16 billion a year in an $8,000 billion economy. It means federal taxation of 20.4 percent of GDP, rather than 20.6.

Some movement. Some philosophy. What really is The Third Way? It is the sound of the Left moving Right but stopping 0.2 percent shy.