The new face of politics

Character, it emerges, means a combination of both personality and competence
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THE EAST Coast chatterers had written it off as the Seinfeld election, a metropolitan comedy of manners "about nothing". But they reckoned without the voters. On Tuesday last those voters had their say, and the US political establishment is still trying to recover.

This being America, though, the disappointed politicians and their legions of support staff will not be satisfied with placidly accepting defeat. They will pick over the entrails of their campaign to determine what went wrong and calculate how to secure victory next time around. The textbook that emerges might offer a blueprint to politicians in Britain and Europe as much as America at a time when the social and political mood has shifted profoundly.

Lesson one: don't trust the pollsters and pundits, they are behind the curve. This is the second time in a row that America's highly paid, hugely lionised political industry has been seriously wrong-footed. At the last mid-term elections in 1994, they failed to predict the Republican landslide. This time, they failed to predict the solidity of the Democratic vote. The pollsters have offered the familiar excuse: we do not forecast, we merely provide a snapshot of voters' intentions at a particular point in the campaign. The snapshot is accurate when it is taken, but voters are fickle.

To this excuse - the same one, incidentally, that British pollsters used to explain Neil Kinnock's defeat in 1992 - is being added another. Polling is becoming increasingly treacherous. Voters are wise to our tactics; they don't tell us the truth. Often, they don't tell us anything. So many people ring them up at dinner time - telephone companies with new offers, credit card companies drumming up business - that they just put the phone down. We can't obtain a proper sample any more.

America's pundits readily admitted to being (mis)led by these polls. A survey of what the country's best-known "talking heads" said in the two weeks before the vote showed a success rate A class of 15- year-olds in a Washington suburb did better. The reasons offered by the humbled analysts ranged from their reliance on suspect polls, the herd instinct that discouraged anyone from separating from the pack and the remoteness of the political (Washington) establishment from "real" America. But they all recognised that punditry might be on the slide.

The two pundits who came closest to predicting the actual result were more presenters than pundits, cast their doubts on the predicted Republican gains in almost throwaway comments and admitted that they were speaking from instinct, not on the basis of "scientific" data.

Lesson two: the world is changing and so is the definition of "character". One of the most sweeping philosophical shifts is working its way through the Anglo-Saxon world as the post-Sixties generation becomes a majority of the voting population. It is not just the widespread public acceptance of what earlier generations would have seen as moral laxity - the fact that straitlaced Americans were swapping Monica Lewinsky jokes around office water fountains and over e-mail systems is no easier to believe for being true - but the different basis on which leaders are judged.

When Bill Clinton was elected President in 1992, the "character" question was writ large, by which was meant the doubts about moral integrity. The big liability for a politician in America - and increasingly in Britain, also - is not sin but hypocrisy.

Clinton's saving grace was never to have campaigned on a family values ticket. While making no pretence of being morally irreproachable, he had nonetheless stuck by his family (and they with him) and was seen to have brought up a presentable, balanced and highly competent daughter. Though opinions in his entourage differ, voters found no evidence that his dalliance with Lewinsky - and ensuing tension in his family - affected his judgment or performance in affairs of state. They were prepared to draw a line between public and private, the line they draw in their own lives.

Lesson three: winning elections is less about ideology and backing than an image of competence. The results of individual elections last week, many of them exceedingly close, could have been predicted more accurately by comparing photographs and video clips of the candidates than by analysing the polls. The successful candidates were invariably lean, managerial types with a quick wit and a televisual image.

Where they faced such an opponent, the plump machine-politicians who mouthed the party line (or what they thought the party line to be) found themselves on the losing side. Quickness, flexibility, a practical hands- on approach, the ability to "connect" over the airwaves - all counted for more than ideological orthodoxy of any variety. In good news for "minorities", they also counted for more than sex or race. Blacks, Asians, women and gays campaigned (and won) more than ever before, not as a result of special minority pleading, but on their programme for government.

In some places, a competent look and approach even outweighed an opponent's considerable spending advantage. As the election of Jesse Ventura, the wrestler-turned-mayor, as governor of Minnesota showed, novelty and freshness were no bar to election so long as voters judged the competence standard to have been met.

"Character", as it emerged from last week's elections, now means a combination of personality and competence. Clinton, who could sit with equal authority in the chair of a chief executive, a Supreme Court judge or a talk-show host, is the epitome of the new standard. And when the hapless Newt Gingrich recited in his valedictory speech the list of items from the Charter with America that brought his Republican party victory in 1994, it was noteworthy how many of the items were now, thanks to masterful presentation, credited in voters' minds to Clinton.

Lesson four (proceeds from lessons two and three): a sex scandal is survivable - even in America. Theses and textbooks will be written about how politicians can survive sex scandals on the basis of the Bill and Monica example. But they will have to recognise the "distinguishing characteristics" of this scandal and its players first. In an Anglo-Saxon country, a post- Sixties electorate helps. It is also crucial that the politician embody all the "character" virtues required for "new leadership". If he is also genuinely liked, even by his enemies, as Clinton is, that helps, too.

But the two best pieces of advice, followed to the letter by the President of the United States, would be: give them all the details - however many, however excruciating, however embarrassing. With luck, the voters' curiosity will be satisfied - and your opponents will be too tongue-tied to mention them. Best of all, get yourself a loyal and articulate wife. If Hillary vouched for her man after all she had been through, who was a mere voter to gainsay her? By the end of the campaign, other political wives were following suit, testifying to their husband's virtues in television advertisements and at rallies. All that was missing were the husbands willing to do the same for their politician wives.

For the politician of the 21st century, Clinton has it all: the sympathetic electorate, the competence, the character - and the wife. And by the way, this was not a Seinfeld election, it was about something: it was about winning.