The great American stalemate

Both Republicans and Democrats raised hopes, then dashed them. There is a lesson here for Tony Blair

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If you think there are signs of degeneration in the British political system, a few days in Washington DC is a fine way of putting it all into perspective. We haven't had Whitehall shut down for lack of money, or the sort of institutional gridlock that has brought the US government into disrepute and chaos. But the American election campaign coming next year will be full of resonance for us.

The conventional wisdom is now that Clinton, having climbed from the depths of public disgust and evaded the probing fingers of the Whitewater affair, will be triumphantly re-elected, the first Democratic president to gain more than one victory since Franklin D Roosevelt.

Clinton will manage this not because of anything he has actually done, but for three negative reasons. First, the best-known conservative, Newt Gingrich, is even more hated for his tantrums, taint of personal corruption and partisan aggression. Second, because the Republicans haven't yet been able to muster a candidate any more charismatic than the ageing Bob Dole, a man with a large reputation for smallness of spirit. And third, because many natural conservatives are so disgusted with mainstream politics that they are likely to turn to a third-party candidate such as Ross Perot.

America's dilemma is summarised by the dark-coloured words spinning through that last paragraph of plain description - "hated'', "tantrums'', "corruption'', "smallness of spirit'', "disgusted''. They too have a two-party system and they too seem to be increasingly disillusioned by it.

There is a good counter-intuitive case to be made against another Clinton victory. For instance, the collapse of the Democrats in the US South means that Clinton would have to win every single Midwestern state - and all but one of them are governed by Republicans.

Then there's the unpredictable effect of the race itself. The Republican primary contest has been an extraordinary media turn-off. With Colin Powell a non-runner, there has been nobody much to challenge Dole. The Washington pundits and television stations have focused instead on the great budget battle between Congress and the White House, leaving would-be Republican presidents, including such once-notorious figures as Pat Buchanan, to slog round the talk-show and cable TV circuit.

It has had its funny side: the Washington Post recently reported on the frustration of "candidates who have spent more than 350 days campaigning in Iowa'' without benefit of the airtime they had expected. One of them, the terminally uncharismatic Texan senator, Phil Gramm, came off his high horse and pleaded with the mere handful of reporters who turned up one stormy night at his meeting: "I came to Iowa to be covered. You've got to cover me.''

Since Clinton seems virtually uncontested as the Democratic candidate, this expense of spirit in a waste of indifference is likely to continue for some time. But once the race proper heats up, the reporters and cameras will be back, mistakes will be amplified and anything can happen. It's worth recalling how pointless the Democratic struggle over who would challenge the "unbeatable'' George Bush seemed when Clinton himself was slogging round rainy Iowa.

But whether it's Clinton, Dole or Senator X who wins the 1996 White House contest, there are enough underlying signs of sickness in the American political system to worry all apparatchiks. Both main parties are highly unpopular, for reasons that are blatantly advertised by the long struggle over the budget.

Both Clinton in 1992 and the Republican "revolutionaries'' who stormed Congress two years later had won by promising to be different, to cut through the capital's culture of closed deals and postponed decisions. Clinton was going to reinvent government, "end welfare as we know it'' and repudiate the old Democrat lobbies still present in Congress. Once installed, though, he blinked and backed down.

Newt's revolutionary guard, meanwhile, were going to reclaim government for the little guy, forcing through a balanced budget. In the event they have been tougher than expected on the poor, who don't vote, or vote Democrat, but have backed away from the bold promises to reform politics by tackling campaign financing, the special-interest groups and term limits for Congress.

As Clinton, Dole and Gingrich argued about the future of health care and welfare for the poorest in America, some $100bn of direct and indirect subsidies to big business was barely grazed. As one political analyst put it to me: "The Republicans adroitly rode a tide of anti-government populism into Congress. But they haven't brought down the temple and thrown out the corrupt political class.''

Both parties, in other words, have raised hopes for a real change in American politics, then dashed them. Hence the sour mood among voters and the readiness to contemplate a radical break with what still seems an old order.

Dissident Democrats as well as Republicans hoped that Powell would be their man, but the general declined. Now strange little Perot, jug-eared, provocative, with a simple chirpy message, is back on the stump. Will Marshall, of the Democratic Leadership Council (roughly equivalent to the modernisers of ''new Labour'' here) warns that ''we may have an organised independent party in up to 40 states in '96.''

In just 18 days recently, Perot registered 120,000 voters in California to get the Reform Party on to the ballot - considered quite a feat by the professionals. Pollsters differ on just how big the disillusioned centre of US politics might be, but reckon that anywhere between 20 and 40 per cent of the vote is available.

They are, of course, a hugely disparate group, ranging from anti-government libertarians to moderate suburbanites. But they are united in finding the traditional pro-big-business Republicans and the inner-city, trade- union-financed Democrats equally uninspiring.

In the shorter term, this revulsion from the old parties is unlikely to achieve much beyond helping Clinton in his battle with Dole. But there is a shift in the tectonic plates of American politics which could in time shake and then transform the party system. As things stand, the Democrats, with their inner-city ''rotten boroughs'' and lack of popular appeal are the biggest likely losers.

The great irony for a British observer is that the ''new Democrat'' reform movement was formed a decade ago partly because of the example of the doomed Labour Party. Now, though, as Marshall says, Tony Blair is admired in Washington: ''Labour is a disciplined party with a directed intelligence; Blair can make it stick. We can't make it stick.'' He, like other reformist Democrats, is worried about Clinton, gloomy about his rickety party, and concerned about the longer-term future of American politics.

To come to Washington and hear Labour praised is a novel experience. But there is a warning for Blair here, too: in politics there are few things more dangerous than arousing popular optimism and expectation of change, and then failing to deliver it. In different ways, both Republicans and Democrats are guilty of just this sin. Last week they seemed locked like exhausted wrestlers in a grip neither could escape. At the century's end, America is bored and angry with the spectacle; the year ahead may show how bored, and how angry.

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