Americans pay scarce attention to our own democratic
processes, let alone those taking place in other countries, including what we
used to call the mother country. Both reason and superstition, however, suggest
that the historic romp of Tony Blair’s Labor Party is a significant event for the
United States as well-and a warning to conservatives here and abroad.
To sober analysts, the
overwhelming reelection of Mr. Blair signals the rejection of American policy
by our closest ally and the decline of America’s international prestige. In the
nation whose leaders have often mediated disputes between the United States and
other European nations, there is simply no public support for the Bush
administration’s discredited and increasingly disorganized approach to issues
of global concern.
To politicians and pundits who have always detected signs of
ideological synchronicity between the United States and the United Kingdom-as
they did during the Tory era-the crushing defeat of the right over there is bad
news for conservatives here. Those who once took comfort from the rise of
Margaret Thatcher probably took a drink that was more gin than tonic as they
observed the ruin of William Hague.
The British election was an inauspicious prelude to George
W. Bush’s first tour of Europe, and the reaction of the White House has once
more revealed that his “grown-up” advisers are as incompetent and confused as
their boss. Suddenly Mr. Bush is in retreat from the arrogant posturing that
characterized his first months in office on almost every policy question, from
relations with North Korea and Russia to arms control and the global
As he arrived on a continent that abhors the death penalty,
the President even proffered an incomprehensible refinement to his position on
capital punishment, announcing abruptly that he thinks mentally retarded
killers do not deserve execution, except when they do. A White House
spokeswoman was unable to explain what distinction Mr. Bush had in mind.
Equally inexplicable is
what kind of “leadership” Mr. Bush expects to provide on arms control and
global warming. His administration has proclaimed its intention to abandon the
anti-ballistic-missile treaty and construct a “missile shield.” But as European
leaders will learn again this week, there is no actual plan for a missile shield
(because no reliable technology exists). There is only the implacable hostility
of Republican ideologues to international security cooperation. Having
forfeited the world’s confidence by scuttling the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty
and slashing Russian nuclear-control programs, Mr. Bush is in no position to
lead anyone anywhere.
The American message on global warming is equally garbled.
On the eve of Mr. Bush’s departure, his chief of staff, Andrew Card, a former
lobbyist for the auto industry, assailed the Europeans for their own supposed
reluctance to ratify the Kyoto treaty. Then Mr. Bush, who unilaterally killed
that treaty three months ago, called for “further study” of the problem. This
is the same dodge he used during his campaign last year. It won’t work now.
All this fumbling and deception has left little space for
Mr. Blair to rescue the President even if he were disposed to do so, which he
isn’t. To the extent that Mr. Hague symbolized acceptance of American policies,
that position was repudiated by nearly two-thirds of the traditionally friendly
British electorate. In the continent’s other capitals, Mr. Bush’s prospects are
If the Blair victory exposes the weakness of Republican
foreign policy, it also indicates a direction for Democratic domestic strategy.
While much commentary about Mr. Blair tends to emphasize his efforts to move
his party toward the center, he fought and won the election on a renewed
commitment to better health and education for all. Quite explicitly, he called
upon voters to repudiate Thatcherism, along with his opponent’s imitation of
that dated philosophy.
For the moment, no prominent Democrat dares to pronounce
such clear differences with conservatism and to articulate a progressive
alternative. The party’s leadership in Congress feels constrained to appear
“bipartisan,” muting its dissent and disappointing its constituency. Even
leaving aside the disputed and undemocratic election result, they seem to have
forgotten the voters’ endorsement of progressive policy last November, when 52
percent of the votes cast went to either Al Gore or Ralph Nader.
It would be an obvious mistake to draw too close a
comparison between British politics and our own; the great differences of
system and temperament can’t be ignored or elided. As one Brit wit put it the
other day, with comedic license, under their system the candidate who gets the
most votes is the winner.
At the very least, however, the British election of 2001
represents the exhaustion of a conservative ideology that has defined politics
in both countries over the past two decades. That is why Mr. Blair’s triumph
this year may be as salient for us now as Mrs. Thatcher’s three victories once
were. And the first Democratic politician who understands and acts upon that transatlantic
shift will have the strongest claim on the future.