Blair’s Victory Gives Democrats a Model

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

environment.

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

still worse.

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. Blair’s Victory Gives Democrats a Model