Remember, John Major Looked Like A Sure Loser, Too

With the general election drawing near, the incumbent is trailing badly in the polls. The rosy glow of victory in the gulf war has faded, replaced by national angst about a sinking economy. But the incumbent, a moderate technocrat who inherited his mantle from a far more charismatic leader, seems bereft of new ideas. He's facing a revitalized opposition eager to avenge three straight election defeats. And his opponent is a man who has dragged his party into the mainstream after years of left-wing domination.

The current U.S. campaign? Nope. It's a snapshot from last spring's election in Britain. Weeks later, Prime Minister John Major's Conservative Party surged from behind to knock off Neil Kinnock's hapless Labor Party. Can Bush pull off a similar comeback? It's too early to tell, but there are eerie parallels between the two elections.

RIGHT TURNS. To start with, the two countries have followed remarkably similar political paths in recent years. Labor's James Callaghan won in 1976, months before Jimmy Carter's victory. Britain's 1979 swing to the right and Margaret Thatcher presaged the Reagan era, and her victories in 1983 and 1987 were echoed by Republican triumphs in the U.S. a year later.

All that hasn't escaped the notice of the Bush camp. "British voters decided they didn't want to turn the country over to Neil Kinnock and Labor, no matter how much they remanufactured themselves," says James P. Pinkerton, a Bush campaign adviser. "The same dynamic is happening here."

That may be wishful thinking. But the Bush campaign's tactics strongly echo the victorious Major campaign. No coincidence: At a Washington conference in June, high-level Tory strategists met with Representative Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and members of the Republican National Committee.

Like Bush, Major couldn't run on his record. Instead, the Conservatives hammered away at Labor as a tax-and-spend party and portrayed Kinnock as a man who was hiding his extreme left-wing views to get elected. Sound familiar? "The Bush campaign is clearly taking a page from the Major playbook," says Thomas E. Mann, director of governmental studies at the Brookings Institution. "If you can make the alternative look even worse, you can win the election."

Oddly, the British polls couldn't detect the impact of the Tory assault. The day before the vote, all major polls were forecasting a Labor plurality. "There were large numbers of people saying they would vote Labor for all the right social reasons--unemployment, health care, education," says Bob Wybrow, political director of the Gallup polling organization's British affiliate. "But when they got into the booth and asked themselves whether they wanted to pay higher taxes, they said no." That's something for the Clinton folks to ponder.

DIFFERENT ENDING? Of course, the transatlantic analogy isn't exact. For one thing, Neil Kinnock is no Bill Clinton. The Labor leader had headed his party for nine years, and his record of support for socialism and unilateral disarmament was well-known. Labor also self-destructed on taxes by spelling out plans calling for big tax hikes on anyone making over $40,000. Clinton, by contrast, is a fresh face and a clever campaigner. "Clinton and his campaign are far more adept than Kinnock at dealing with the give and take of modern attack politics," says Geoffrey D. Garin, a Democratic pollster. "And Bush is in bigger trouble than Major was. I'd bet on the same story with a different ending."

Maybe, but Democratic strategists, who seem unconcerned by the British parallels, may want to note a few other unsettling similarities. Both Clinton and Kinnock have outspoken, left-leaning wives who are vulnerable to attack. And Clinton's economic manifesto is called "Putting People First"--a slogan Kinnock pushed hard in 1984 and 1985.

Still, with Bush claiming victory in the cold war as a Republican triumph, a better British precursor for the current U.S. election might be the 1945 contest between Winston Churchill and Clement Attlee. Fresh from victory in World War II, Churchill expected an easy win. But weary voters had already turned their attention to the tattered economy. In an upset, Attlee won. Bill Clinton's advisers had better hope that if history repeats itself, it will be 47-year-old history, not last spring's.

       -- Colorless, pragmatic successor to the charismatic, fiercely ideological 
      Ronald Reagan
       -- Popularity rose after taking tough stand against Iraq
       -- Economic woes deepened soon after he took office
       -- Trying to paint opponent Bill Clinton as tax-loving liberal in moderate 
       -- Colorless, pragmatic successor to the charismatic, fiercely ideological 
      Margaret Thatcher
       -- Popularity rose after taking tough stand against Iraq
       -- Economic woes deepened soon after he took office
       -- Painted opponent Neil Kinnock as tax-loving socialist in moderate guise
      DATA: BW
Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.