FOREIGN elections rarely hold direct implications for American electoral politics. Yet 1992 may herald an important exception. Indeed, the results of Britain's elections on April 9 could prove portentous for the Bush administration's hopes of retaining the White House in November.
Even allowing for national differences, the circumstances of the two election campaigns bear striking resemblance. Each is being waged in the latter stages of economic recession. Prime Minister John Major and President George Bush both remain personally popular, yet lead increasingly fractious parties. Instinctively pragmatic, both men struggle to express competent political vision for the 1990s. Each faces a stiff challenge to his government's record in economic management by a reinvigorated opposition.
And while both attained office as anointed successors to the Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan mantles, they now find the record of a dozen years of conservative rule to be a curse as well as a blessing.
The Thatcher and Reagan "revolutions" of 1979 and 1980 were led by conviction politicians espousing like principles. They were neoconservatives rather than traditional Tories, more prone to staking out clear positions than striking compromises; they championed the economic marketplace and traditional social values; they saw their own success as a product of hard work and perseverance, not class privilege. It was no accident that the Anglo-American special relationship was closest between these two ideolo gical soulmates.
The legacy of Mr. Reagan and Mrs. Thatcher weighs heavily on their successors in at least two respects. First, they remolded their parties to reflect their own priorities, creating a temporary but misleading aura of unity, and setting the stage for future party infighting. Thatcher rejected the "one-nation" Toryism of Macmillan and Heath; the California Reaganites broke with the pragmatic Republicanism of Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and Nelson Rockefeller (and, for that matter, Mr. Bush). The Pat Buchan an challenge is the inevitable offshoot of a party pulled in two directions at once.
A second negative effect of the Thatcher and Reagan eras stems from their very success in dictating the terms of the political debate. Tangible economic successes such as privatization and lower income-tax rates in Britain, and low-inflation growth in the United States, forced the opposition to retrench and adjust. One result is the new-look Labour Party, emphasizing governance rather than ideological purity and now running neck-and-neck with with the Tories; ironically, an electable opposition is one of
the enduring legacies of Thatcherism.
The Republican onslaught likewise forced the Democratic Party to respond, in its shift from nominating a traditional liberal in 1984 (Walter Mondale) to a non-ideological technocrat in 1988 (Michael Dukakis), and now to a moderate outsider in 1992 (probably Bill Clinton). Social issues such as urban decay and homelessness have been notably avoided by the major candidates competing for the centrist vote, which may help explain the palpable disillusionment of so many voters in both countries.
HEREIN lies the dilemma for Mr. Major and Bush. Both are "second sons of the conservative revolution," who have attempted, with only partial success, to build on the conservative record while also tempering its excesses. In doing so, these thoughtful, personally well-liked leaders have had to endure embarrassing slights by their predecessors; Reagan (and now Mr. Nixon) criticized Bush as lacking vision, while Thatcher snipes at her successor from the Commons backbenches. Such criticisms feed a growing pe rception of drift and indecision at the top. As a result, both Bush and Major face the real possibility of being swept aside as transitional figures in the shift to the post-cold-war era.
The elections will likely be a referendum on national economic performance, in which the two governments increasingly are hostage to fortune. In Britain, the signs of economic revival are still few and far between, and the government remains hampered by high interest rates that, unlike in previous electoral cycles, cannot be politically manipulated due to the constraints of membership in the European Monetary System.
Bush on the other hand may find solace in the calendar, since a modest recovery by midyear could boost his prospects. Even so, like Major, he may be judged more by the unemployment number, which tends to be a lagging rather than a leading economic indicator, than by an improving GNP. For both men, success may depend on the extent to which voters accept the proposition that the known evil is better than the unknown one. The Bush White House will ignore the tea leaves on April 9 only at its own peril.