Anger, It Plays in Europe Too

European political parties have sent scouts to study strange but instructive US campaigns

FRENCH leaders, who armed with brie and baguette are battling to preserve their nation from an American invasion of rap music and cheap hamburgers seem to have acquired a sudden taste for one Yankee tradition: nasty politics.

Apparently, so have British and other European leaders. Seeing their own elections coming, they have sent scouts on the United States' campaign trail, trying to discover what can be learned from how - and why - the winners won.

A team from the British Labour Party was spotted in California analyzing the impact of negative TV advertisements in the race for state governor. The Conservatives, aware that Prime Minister John Major is in electoral trouble, asked their agents in Washington to report what President Clinton was doing to restore his credibility.

Meanwhile, Paris newspapers say political strategists have taken an unusual interest in US campaign techniques. They sought to deconstruct Americans' disenchantment with politics, as French voters feel the same.

Transatlantic trafficking in campaign methods can be risky. In the 1992 presidential contest, Mr. Major sent a team of party strategists to the US to advise George Bush on how the Conservatives won that year's British general election. The coolness ever since between Downing Street and the White House is directly traceable to Major's readiness to help the man Clinton defeated.

There are limits to how far European politicians can apply US campaign techniques. Spending on TV and other forms of campaign publicity is strictly regulated. But this has not stopped papers from chronicling the perceived excesses of the US political process.

The London Financial Times reported: ``The sad and indelible memory of all the contested campaigns is that money and negativism have been identified as the keys to electoral success.''

The Independent agreed: ``Money and technology have met politics and overwhelmed it.... A stinging ad laden with subliminal character smears defines an opponent far more effectively than a line-by-line critique of his position on deficit reduction.''

Distaste has entered the coverage, too. A writer in the London Observer, reporting the California campaigns, likened Los Angeles to ``the onion Peer Gynt peels in the play by Ibsen: It is potent, it tastes good, it makes you cry, and it's empty at the centre.''

Gary McDowell, director of the US Studies Institute at London University, says the revulsion of the European media at the campaigning techniques of 1994 is off target. ``Character assassination is a great American tradition,'' US-born Mr. McDowell says. ``Abraham Lincoln was reviled as a chimpanzee. If the American people ever wake up on election day and all go to the polls smiling, that's a country I've never lived in.''

McDowell sees in the British a ``strange fascination'' with Clinton: ``He has never been popular here, and his image is that of a bumbler, a force to be avoided by anybody seriously running for office.''

A few reporters have tried to understand what was going on beneath the hoopla and name-calling of the 1994 campaign.

Andrew Neil, writing in the London Sunday Times, detected ``a growing American consensus against government'' which he thinks will be ``the wave of the future'' throughout the Western world. He said this consensus was the real problem Clinton and the Democrats faced in the campaign.

``Big government was the product of the industrial age,'' he wrote. ``As we become information societies, power will become devolved and people will demand more control over their lives.''

Mr. Neil thinks this is a lesson the British and other Europeans have yet to learn.

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