Scandal followed scandal. Gaffe piled on gaffe. The ruling party, utterly invincible in the last election, overnight became the symbol of incompetence and corruption. Carefully launched plans and programs fell flat. Legislators were caught taking bribes in brown envelopes. Meanwhile, the party leader hunkered down in his office, controlling all contacts with the media.
No, I am not talking about the Republicans in 2005 and 2006. I am talking about the British Tory party in 1996 and 1997. True, the rules of politics are different here and there. Also, the Tories had been in charge of Britain for 17 years, longer than the Republicans have controlled Congress, and their crackup was more spectacular. But — having been a member of the British press corps throughout the prime ministership of John Major, the last Conservative leader of Britain — I can tell you that the dynamics of these two great political collapses nevertheless feel strangely similar.
Certainly the behavior of politicians in both eras made clear the relationship between perceived electoral invincibility and petty corruption: The longer you’ve been in office, the less you fear the voters’ wrath, the more likely you are to bend the rules. The “cash for questions” scandal of 1995 Britain — legislators took bribes for presenting questions in Parliament — in that sense resembles the Jack Abramoff scandal of 2006 Washington. Relatively speaking, huge sums of money weren’t involved — just a few thousand pounds here or a golfing trip there — but it was enough to make life more bearable for the underpaid career politician, one who thinks his electorate has become too stupid to notice what he does in his spare time. And enough to fall afoul of the law.
Both eras also illustrate the old maxim that political failures always beget more political failures. Only months after John Major made the unfortunate decision to link the British currency to the European exchange rate mechanism — a predecessor of the common currency — a clutch of hedge funds (led, incidentally, by George Soros) forced sterling out. Tory economic reliability, once the heart of the party’s appeal, never recovered. Among other things, that meant that when the Tories launched a perfectly sensible pension reform, nobody took it seriously.
A White House that acquired a record for incompetence and mismanagement in Iraq, New Orleans and elsewhere will recognize this phenomenon, particularly where it concerns pensions, which we call Social Security on this side of the Atlantic. Once lost, credibility is never regained.
Finally, both eras also tell us a lot about what happens to political ideas, even good ones, in the hands of complacent politicians. At different times, both British and American conservatives have lambasted uncontrolled government spending, unbalanced budgets and the “waste, fraud and abuse” that seem inherent in large government programs. And yet, at different times they appeared to tolerate, even to encourage, all of the above. I’m not sure I’ve ever understood the psychology of this — if balanced budgets were so good in the 1990s, why don’t they matter in the 2000s? — but it seems, again, linked to power: The longer you stay in charge, the more tempting it becomes to put things off. Today you’ve got to build that Alaskan bridge to nowhere or add that drug benefit to Medicare to get reelected. You can always balance the budget tomorrow. Right?
There is, of course, one major difference between Britain in 1997 and America in 2006: So far America has no Tony Blair, the Labor Party leader who stole all of the Tories’ best economic and foreign policy ideas, at least on paper, and beat them at their own game. So completely did Blair rout the Tories, and so rapidly did he shift the paradigm — redefining the Labor Party and thereby forcing a redefinition of the Tory party — that the Tories lost not one election but three. The British journalist Robert Harris once wrote that when Blair took over it was like an old science fiction movie in which “a mad boffin throws a lever and the poles are reversed. Political matter suddenly became antimatter. Negatives became positives . . . [as if] someone switched the bottles and the Tories became reprogrammed with socialist DNA.” Since then they’ve changed in different ways. Indeed, their recently elected party leader, David Cameron, has just appointed a series of pop stars to advise him on Third World poverty, something Blair would do but something it’s hard to imagine any pre-Blair Tory even contemplating. If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.
There is no American Blair at the moment, no Democrat prepared to attack the Republicans from the right, or to blast the Republican Congress for wasteful spending or insufficiently vigorous foreign policy, or even just to change the style of the political debate so rapidly that nobody in either party understands what’s happened until it’s too late. But there could be. Everyone’s forgotten this now, but Blair himself was a fluke, becoming Labor leader after his immediate predecessor, John Smith, had a heart attack. And should a similar deus ex machina take place in the United States — then, perhaps, we’ll learn how head-swirlingly fast an apparently invincible political party can unravel here too.