Comment: Labour should learn the cross-party lesson

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Not everyone would go on television to denounce their husband as a "frothing, rabid dog". And not everyone's husband would respond on another channel: "I went home and bit her." But there are very few couples like Mary Matalin and James Carville, whose marriage is a public symbol of the bipartisanship of Bill Clinton's second administration. Mr Carville is the "ragin' Cajun" who ran Mr Clinton's first campaign for the presidency, and who is now running a vendetta on the President's behalf against the special prosecutor in the Whitewater affair, Kenneth Starr. Ms Matalin was one of George Bush's 1992 campaign team, and is now a regular Republican media commentator. They fell in love while taking chunks out of each other in the heat of political battle, and continue to do so in public in one of Washington's most entertaining vaudeville acts.

For Mary and Jim, political insults are terms of endearment. Their political differences are not deep, or serious, or ideological. They care deeply about the ends of politics, but for them the argument about the means is a game. Calling him a mad canine was a public display of affection. With the exception of the religious right, which turned out to be very much a minority force in this year's presidential election, this reflects the state of American politics.

Bipartisanship is the watchword of the renewed White House. Mr Clinton has appointed Republican Senator William Cohen as Secretary of Defence - the first time a top cabinet job has been given to someone from the opposing party for 25 years. The appointment of the hawkish Madeleine Albright as the first woman Secretary of State broke a different precedent, but was also in line with the centrist approach. She has courted Republican opinion with her attacks on the United Nations leadership.

Last week the President set out his strategy for the next four years, declaring that the centre "can hold, has held, and the American people are asking it to continue to hold". In part, this is simply an acknowledgement of the realities of Washington politics. Mr Clinton faces a Republican majority in both Houses of Congress and, in any case, nothing can get through without bipartisan agreement, because of the 60-vote majority required in the Senate to carry the guillotine and prevent bills being talked out. In part, it is because Mr Clinton falls into the "healer" category of politician, rather than the "warrior" category. He did better when Congress was against him, after the 1994 mid-term Republican landslide, than before.

Bipartisanship was also central to the President's re-election. The strategy, called "triangulation" by his advisers, was to position him above and between the Democratic and Republican parties. Now his hopes of significant reform in his second term depend on the success of the same strategy in office. If he is to achieve his historic goal of cutting the welfare budget to balance the books by 2002, he will need Republican support.

Is this a principle that should apply beyond the United States? We ask only because of the impending visit to Tony Blair's war room of George Stephanopoulos, one of Mr Carville's associates who spent the past four years next door to the Oval Office as the President's senior adviser. Mr Stephanopoulos, 35, has a reputation as a liberal, although he is famous for the observation that you can never be too right wing in an election campaign. That seems to be a lesson Mr Blair has already taken to heart.

He intends to fight the election as leader of the party of the "radical centre", and often refers to the fact that his views on Europe are identical to those of Kenneth Clarke, the Chancellor.

More than that, he has stolen the Conservative "One Nation" label and says he hopes "many" on the Tory benches would support the policies of a new Labour government. Even if the Liberal Democrats' claim that 12 Tory MPs would defect if a Euro-sceptic became Tory leader after the election is mischief-making, it is certainly true that there will be about 60 Tories prepared to vote with the Liberal Democrats and a Labour government on Europe.

This is Mr Blair's tripartisan approach, and it offers the prospect of a realignment of British politics along pro- and anti-European lines. It goes without saying that the parallels with American politics are not exact. Europe represents an ideological divide in our politics, even a schism of national identity, of the kind which is largely absent on the other side of the Atlantic. The Europhobes are more powerful than the religious right in America, although they could marginalise themselves by driving their programme towards British withdrawal from the European Union.

The British political system, lacking the institutional checks and balances of the American Constitution, does not require cross-party consensus to drive forward a blueprint for reform - as Margaret Thatcher proved. But there is now a pro-European majority in the House of Commons which is likely to be significantly larger after the election, despite an overwhelming press bias against it. And Mr Blair accepts the argument that ambitious reforms, such as those planned and hinted at for our constitution and welfare system, will be better designed and longer lasting if they command cross-party support.

Last time, with Mr Clinton's diversion into gays in the military and the failure of his health care reforms, the US President offered Labour negative lessons in how to assume the responsibilities of office. This time, he seems to offer a much more positive model. Listen out for a spokesman for Mr Blair describing Kenneth Clarke affectionately as a frothing, rabid dog.

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