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Political Formation Flying

Did George W. Bush’s election as U.S. President foreshadow a move to the right in Europe?

December 7, 2000

Did George W. Bush's election as U.S. President foreshadow a move to the right in Europe?

Scandals and impeachment dramas aside, the most interesting aspect of Bill Clinton’s second term was that so many other countries around the world fell into step politically with the man who claimed to be a “New Democrat.” Britain elected Tony Blair as the standard-bearer of “New Labour.” Germany elected Gerhard Schröder after his campaign to embody the “New Middle.”

Both these men copied Clinton in that they re-branded parties that looked old and tired and stuck in their left-of-center ways. Instead, they came up with new and centrist images that downplayed ideology and were explicitly friendly to markets and entrepreneurs. And although the rhetoric of Lionel Jospin’s campaign remained Socialist in tone, the French prime minister has delivered privatization, tax cuts and welfare reform — just like Blair and Clinton.

At a personal level, this novel community of cross-border politics mattered. Thanks to his Third Way seminars, Clinton has met more of his fellow European leaders more often than any other U.S. President. In policy terms, this political affinity helped maintain the NATO and European consensus on Kosovo and bombing Serbia, and has kept U.S.-European trade rows from escalating out of control.

But before one starts to weep over this loss of transatlantic solidarity, a look back is in order. And there, one finds that this tendency for Europe and the United States to march in political step has over the years become almost routine — on the conservative as well as the progressive side.

We saw it in the 1980s with Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and Helmut Kohl — all rallying behind a robust renewal of Cold War firmness against the crumbling Soviet Union, followed by a swift embrace of Mikhail Gorbachev’s reform efforts. In Britain, Germany and the United States, and even in the nominally socialist President Mitterrand’s France after his policy reversal of 1983, we saw a common attack on inflation.

Perhaps they had little choice. In the late 1970s, Jimmy Carter in the White House, Helmut Schmidt in Bonn and Jim Callaghan in Downing Street had all mismanaged their economies to the degree that their electors replaced them with conservatives.

But at least the Social Democrats who were in office in Washington, Bonn and London in the late 1970s delivered the crucial agreement to re-arm. They decided to install cruise and Pershing missiles in Europe — a decision which in retrospect looks like a crucial precondition for the eventual end of the Cold War.

But now we may be heading for a prolonged period of political division between the two dominant economic blocks. A Bush presidency will be backed up by a conservative U.S. Congress, with a narrow majority in the House of Representatives and a technical majority of Vice President Dick Cheney’s tie-breaking vote in a Senate with fifty Republicans and fifty Democrats.

With the exception of Italy, where Silvio Berlusconi’s centre-right coalition could well be elected next year, there is little evidence in current polls suggesting that Europe will follow the United States’ shift to the right. After a brief setback during last summer’s fuel crisis, Tony Blair is again enjoying a 15-percent lead in British polls, and the Conservative opposition is floundering.

In Germany, the Christian Democrats are still reeling from the campaign finance scandals that tarnished the reputation of former Chancellor Helmut Kohl, and Gerhard Schröder looks to be in a strong position. In France, Lionel Jospin holds a widening poll lead over President Jacques Chirac, whose main aide was arrested recently over yet another political finance scandal.

The ideology gap between Europe and the United States is even wider than it looks. Even European conservatives find it hard to swallow Bush’s views on the death penalty, gun laws and abortion. The European liberals and center-left now in power think Bush’s politics belong on another planet.

Worse still, serious policy rows are looming. The Bush camp is threatening to withdraw U.S. troops from Kosovo and Bosnia — just as the Europeans are determined to line up with Russia to protest Bush’s pledge to build an anti-ballistic missile defense system. Transatlantic relations are in for a serious test, with no community of political affinity to smooth over the trouble spots.

This should not be happening. The political tides in Europe and the United States have tended to flow in the same direction for an entirely logical reason. Elections usually depend on the voters’ level of economic contentment. In a globalized economy, countries tend to follow each other into booms and recessions, so voters in most advanced countries are likely to feel similarly inclined to reward or punish their rulers.

But the remarkable feature of the current situation is that Gore appears to be losing the election despite the long boom of the Clinton-Gore-Greenspan years. Of course, optimistic Europeans think that in their countries, with his lead of 300,000 in the popular vote, Mr. Gore would — and should — have won.

On the other hand, pessimists, watching the way in which Germany’s Neuer Markt is falling even faster than the Nasdaq, wonder whether Mr. Gore’s fate simply foreshadows a recession that will return Europe’s conservatives to power.