Pots and kettles get the negative vote

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This is the season for selecting "Quotes Of The Year", and last week the New York Times offered a stunning late candidate. In a piece on the unpopularity of President Clinton, an unnamed "senior British minister" was quoted as saving: "No point in tryingto deal with the [Clinton] administration any more. They've had the stuffing knocked out of them."

This comment was widely reported elsewhere as terrible evidence of the American government's paralysis and isolation. Nowhere was there any sense of the sublime and thrilling comedy of what this senior British minister had said. A member of the Major administration had accused another government of being demoralised and pointless. Parents and teachers are advised to keep a copy of this quotation close by in case they ever need to define for a child the expression about the kettle and the pot.

I spent last week in America, and have never felt, politically, so at home. A leader held in general public contempt was at the mercy of his legislature, his policy on a cherished ideological issue being rewritten by members only recently regarded as irrelevant eccentrics. For Europe read deficit reduction, for Teresa Gorman read Newt Gingrich, for the Tory rebels the new Republican majorities in Congress. The similarities are chilling - although President Clinton at least has the consolation that his obstructive parliamentarians come from the opposing party.

Simultaneously, the English-speaking world's two supposed showpiece democracies are not, in any conventional sense, being governed. Indeed, if we add in the recent or current stasis in Dublin and Rome, it is apparent that the general crisis of Western government is quickening and thickening.

There is, admittedly, a convenient and reassuring explanation for the political situations in Britain and America: that they involve no more than a coincidence of incompetent individuals, electors having simply goofed in 1992 by choosing Major and Clinton. This is an appealing proposition, because the problem could simply be fixed by a couple of resignations or elections. This might be called the "oops, sorry" theory of modern politics.

The difficulty is that Clinton and Major are such opposites in policies, charisma and electoral appeal that it is hard to explain why they should end up as political twins. Clinton was ending 12 years of right-wing rule, Major was extending it. Major proudly went to court to prove that he was not an adulterer; Clinton has squads of lawyers working to keep similar charges out of court. The only obvious significant link between them is that both were essentially negative selections. Major was favoured by his party for not being Heseltine and then by his country for not being Kinnock, while Clinton won on a not-Bush ticket, helped by the not-Bush votes that went to Ross Perot.

This legacy of electoral reluctance has clearly affected their attempts to consolidate their positions, but it also - in reminding us of the shortage of alternatives at the time - warns against simple faith in replacements. Whom would the voters have instead? Bob Dole, the Senate Republican leader, was erroneously treated by much of the media here on his recent visit to Britain as a kind of president-in-waiting, but he is 20 months, tens of millions of dollars and a lot of luck and party in-fighting away from even becoming his party's presidential nominee. Nor, at 71 and having run in three previous campaigns without success, can Dole plausibly be represented as a big new idea in American politics. Mentioned internal Democratic alternatives to Clinton - Vice-President Gore, Senator Bob Kerrey of Nebraska - are similarly damaged goods, kicked back by the national electorate in earlier campaigns. Clinton, elected as not-Bush, seems likely to be defeated easily by a not-Clinton ca ndidate, but the underlying crisis - of an ideology of "against" not "for", of a shortage of legislative talent - would merely be inflamed.

In Britain, the position looks much simpler. There exists a big new idea, a clear prime ministerial nominee, in Tony Blair. Clinton's experience, though, has shown that an electoral tide of change is not a coherent or stable force, and the leader who surfs in on it is vulnerable to undertow and drowning. It was significant that, in Dudley last week, Blair started counselling against voters expecting too much. You sensed his growing terror at the level of public investment in him.

He is sensible to feel this. Contempt towards existing leaders is great fun, for voters and commentators, but it is necessary to acknowledge the gap between the specific failures of the Clinton and Major administrations and the abuse they attract. The only absolute definition of incompetence is failure to perform simple tasks, but the issues that have brought these governments most notoriety - Europe, Bosnia, American health care - are crazily complicated.

Others of their problems are reducible to the emotional immaturity of the electorate and press. Major's government has been shaken many times by sex. Clinton, in a country riven with Aids and teenage pregnancy, had to sack his Surgeon-General last week because she dared to commend masturbation as a safe form of under-age sex. Who's stupid? Them or us? We talk about "character" problems - Major has too little adrenalin, Clinton too much testosterone - but is it not possible that almost any variety of personality would collapse under the voter scepticism and media attention to which leaders are now subjected?

What would terrify me if I were a young politician - or even old Bob Dole - is that the cynical rule of political leadership used to be that, as long as you had economic growth, you would be fine. But we are faced with a prime minister and a president for whom it is providing no shield against the jeers.

Our democracies are witnessing a phenomenon that might be called "Electorism", in which citizens seek to shake and remake the political system in the voter's equivalent of feminism or the black power movement. But those earlier assaults on the structuresand assumptions of the Establishment could be enacted by more women and non-whites achieving power. Electorism can operate only through more non-politicians becoming politicians - a third of the new Republican recruits to Congress were untainted by training or preparation - and this distinction cancels itself out at the moment of their election. So where does the anger go? It is directed against the new politicians.

Electors and elected who believe our present troubles are just about Major or just aboutClinton - and could be solved by their removal - are prominent among those who, to use the favourite rhetoric of disgruntled American voters, "just don't get it".