How quickly the honeymoon can sour

Bill Clinton's first 100 days were a fiasco with lessons for Tony Blair
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The Independent Online
How familiar it all seems, in this heady political spring of 1997. Many and deliberate are the parallels between Tony Blair and Bill Clinton at the dawn of their respective eras: the replacement of the stale and old by modernity, novelty and youth, the cultivatedly informal styles, last Friday's walk down a Downing Street that was a miniature Pennsylvania Avenue on Inauguration Day, 1993. But one similarity, thus far at least - Blair is avoiding the serial disasters that came close to destroying the Clinton Presidency at its very start.

"Hit the Ground Running", they all promise. But those of us who were there will never forget the stumbling, pothole-strewn birth of Clinton's America. It was Murphy's Law made flesh. The tone was set even before he entered the White House, as the President-elect struggled to form his Administration. Then came Nannygate and the quest for a female Attorney General who had paid social security contributions for her domestic staff, a requirement satisfied only by the third candidate. There then followed the quite unneccessary distraction over a campaign promise on gays in the military. Finally, there was an ill-conceived economic stimulus package suggesting that this New Democrat was at heart an old-fashioned tax- and-spend liberal. One way and another, the first 100 days of Clinton felt like the last days of Major.

To be fair, not every problem was self inflicted. With the sole recent exception of Alec Douglas-Home in 1963, British prime ministers enjoy honeymoons. So, once, did American Presidents. Not, however, Bill Clinton, who inspired then - and still does - a hatred in some quarters matched only by that felt for Richard Nixon. But he did make matters worse for himself. He appeared undisciplined and undignified, oblivious to the fact that he was not only head of government, but also head of state, someone who should not take to TV to reveal whether his taste in underpants runs to boxers or briefs. In a word, the "bubble", that invisible aura of high power, refused to click shut around him.

By contrast, love him or loathe him, Blair has no "bubble" problem. Already, after less than a week in Downing Street, he appears every inch a prime minister. The manifesto and a bland campaign gave few hostages to fortune, while everyone seems to know exactly what he's doing. At the weekend, Chris Smith nimbly avoided a gaffe on the Elgin Marbles. Then came the swift sign-up to the European Social Chapter, and Gordon Brown's stunning coup over the Bank of England and interest rates. That's hitting the ground running.

Helping Labour, of course, are the inbuilt safeguards peculiar to the British system. Parliamentary government ensures that a potential prime minister has long since learnt the ropes (even the much-mocked Douglas- Home, in fact yielded to few in his experience of government and the inner workings of the Conservative Party). Despite his youth, Blair has been an MP for almost 14 years.

Remember too that, compared to an American president, a British prime minister is an elected dictator. The former must deal with a Congress that even when controlled by his own party is fiercely jealous of its constitutional role as a separate branch of government. In Britain, on the other hand, the prime minister automatically commands a majority in Parliament, over whom his powers of patronage are huge. Permanent civil servants wait to help him at every turn. If he knows what he wants to do, he can do it. Clinton, by contrast, had never experienced Washington politics at the sharp end, and his arrogant and untried staff knew everything about campaigning but next to nothing about governing.

At this point, however, the paths of Blair and Clinton start to converge. The Prime Minister, we are told, wants to run a presidential administration, in which 10 Downing Street becomes the White House, command and control centre for all government dealings with the media. If so, then beware. It won't work.

Arguably the gravest error of the untested Clintonites was to lock a door. It connected the White House press room with the corridor leading to the office of the White House spokesman. Never - even during the worst days of Watergate - had it been closed. Bill Clinton inherited a press corps at least as well disposed towards him as the lobby is to Blair, but at a stroke he lost it. The aim was to control the news; instead, he achieved the opposite. Thus the fierce and hostile coverage of embarrassments such as the sacking of the White House travel office staff and Whitewater, as well as that $250 haircut aboard Air Force One on the tarmac at Los Angeles airport, which was portrayed as a regal whim that paralysed West Coast air traffic for hours.

Now it is hard to imagine Tony Blair, so disciplined and anything but raffish, causing such public inconvenience. But is it a coincidence that just as Clinton promised the "most ethical Administration in history", so the Prime Minister yesterday read the riot act on sleaze to his new MPs? The very standards Blair sets make him doubly vulnerable to even small transgressions by his followers or himself.

But, if in these next few weeks, the machine should come off the rails, let Blair look across the Atlantic. The art of politics is not so much avoiding mistakes, as not making the same one twice. Bill Clinton's first two years were an excruciating job-training course, culminating in the Republicans' mid-term sweep of Congress. But by 1995, finally, the "bubble" snapped tight, and in November last year Clinton won a second term in a canter. Let Tony Blair be so lucky in 2002, or whenever he calls the next election. Today's balmy honeymoon will be a distant memory. If mistakes are inevitable, then he should make them quickly - and learn from them.

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