Message for our leaders: ignore Clinton's America

Major and Blair have similarities with Bill Clinton. But they should learn no lessons from a mere campaigning machine
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The Independent Online
Tony Blair is our Bill Clinton. He is young, telegenic and very bright, and takes no prisoners. He is a brilliant politician of the centre- left who has come to a happy accommodation with much of the mainstream conservative agenda. He is, like Clinton, a child of the Sixties, who prefers jeans, wears his hair slightly long, listens to rock music. But, like Clinton, he has turned his back on some of that decade's legacy: he is pro-family, pious, stern on law and order; he makes austere noises about welfare reform.

John Major, by contrast, is our ... Bill Clinton. He is the incumbent leader, repeatedly written off by wiseacre journalists. His administration has tacked, and has suffered from what we here call "sleaze" and the Americans, in a different context, call "the character question". But like Clinton, Major is a superb campaigner and comeback merchant who knows that it is always, at root, the economy. Like Clinton, he has been delivering economic recovery.

So which is it? Will the real British Bill please stand up? Let's admit that these Atlantic-abolishing parallels are a game: the United States is a very different country, whose politicians play by other rules. The politics of Washington move in an asymmetric rhythm from that of the politics of London. But there is enough common daylight in British and American politics for the Clinton question to be an illuminating one.

And the answer, of course, is that Blair seems more like Clinton than the Prime Minister does; for to be "like" Clinton in 1996 is to be, above all, someone with the gloss and confidence of a winner. Had John Major been confronting a Labour Bob Dole - an unpopular, older politician - then perhaps he would seem Clintonesque. But he isn't, and doesn't.

Yet the Clinton comparison is one which Blair, if he is wise, will flinch from, and not only because it implies a weakness for trouser-dropping. Consider: when Clinton is so regularly, almost universally, described as a brilliant politician, what does this mean? Does it mean that he has changed American society? Not a whit. He has presided, literally, over a nation driven by globalised corporations, by the barons of the new technologies and by swift, sometimes fracturing social change, but little touched by the doings of the White House.

This recovery is not "his", in the sense that America's recovery from the Depression was built and directed by the Roosevelt administrations. The country has entered these milder waters during Clinton's genial, loose- tillered watch, and this has hugely helped him, keeping the electorate in relatively forgiving mood; but the growth, employment and inflation record has essentially been accomplished by American business and by the Fed.

Where, then, is his brilliance? It exists; but it is a technical thing. People talk of the President's phenomenal memory for names and his charismatic flesh-pressing; his instinct for dominating a room, for doing a deal, for scenting trouble. Hardened journalists are awe-struck by his energy and resilience, by the enthusiasm for campaigning. People talk of the "political animal". That's Clinton - instinctive, with special eyes, hands, nostrils and teeth - built for winning votes, as Tyson is built for hitting people.

As ideology and savage political argument have gone out of fashion, then this animal skill has come to be rated ever higher. But for any politician who aspires to be radical or progressive, there is a trap here; a political- animal-trap.

It works because the second-order, technical expertise so admired in modern politics, and so exemplified by Clinton, does not move great masses of voters. They know that big reforms come from argumentative and brave leaders, and cause pain, and make enemies.

So, as the political class gazes admiringly at the latest glittering example of a great campaigner or a great party-manager at work, the rest of the world turns quietly away. Look at the pathetic voter turn-out achieved in yesterday's election in America; or the worryingly low rates of registration and intention to vote among younger adults here. A decade or so more of this and the essential base of centre-leftish voting - the very mechanism on which Clinton and Blair depend - will have been eaten away.

In the end, if progressive politicians don't progress, preferring instead to follow the dominant conservative ideology of the day, then conservatives can only win. It may be infuriating for Republican or Tory activists to see cherished ideas being implemented by their political enemies; but why should conservative voters worry?

It is not, it seems, too late for Clinton. With the freedom of a second term, he could deliver at least some of the promises of his earliest national campaigning.

And, obviously, it is not too late for Tony Blair. If he wins in May, his real career in politics lies mainly ahead of him: all his essential choices on welfare, tax, political reform, Europe, the environment are as yet unmade and can be taken, if he chooses, in a progressive, self- certain spirit - there will be no Republican Congress to fret about.

It isn't surprising that Blair is relaxed this morning about the Clinton parallel - who wouldn't want to be tainted by awesome electoral success? Yet the idea that he should, in power, take lessons from the first Clinton administration is a dire one. In office, Clintonism suggests not the brilliance of the campaign trail, but an ungainly political dance to somebody else's tune. So: Tony Blair - Britain's Bill Clinton? No thanks.