How can you tell if a political party is brain-dead? Easy. It spends an entire campaign denouncing the incumbent as a smarmy, good-for-nothing liar, rather than outlining its own agenda. The Republicans tried it against Bill Clinton in 1996, the Democrats tried it against George W. Bush in 2004, and now in Britain the Conservatives are trying it, with equal lack of success, against Tony Blair.
Such a tactic is beguiling because, to True Believers, the other side's triumphs are never on the up and up; they must be the result of hoodwinking the hapless electorate. The problem with this approach was pointed out to me by a political strategist last week: "Voters think all politicians are liars. So telling them that someone is a particularly effective liar doesn't work."
It especially doesn't work for the Tories because they're accusing Prime Minister Blair of duplicity on an issue about which they actually agree with him. Conservative leader Michael Howard says he would have supported the invasion of Iraq even without weapons of mass destruction the subject of Blair's supposed dissembling. By nevertheless making the L-word the centerpiece of today's election, Howard comes off as opportunistic and unprincipled.
Beyond the "liar liar" taunts, the Tories have little to offer British voters. Their agenda is essentially indistinguishable from the Labor Party's. The biggest change Howard has promised is a reduction in immigration. This may snare some votes among xenophobic yobs, but it has also led (Arnold Schwarzenegger, pay attention) to a backlash against "mean-spirited" right-wingers.
Much of the Tories' trouble is due to the skill with which Blair has seized the political center. He has run a tough, pro-American foreign policy while not interfering with a domestic economy that has produced 13 years of growth. Yet there are still issues on which he could be vulnerable, even if the Tories stay away from the "third rail" of British politics, the National Health Service.
The first of these is taxes. Although the Labor government has kept top income tax rates where they were after the Thatcher cuts of the 1980s, it has presided over dozens of stealth tax increases. The share of the economy taken by government has edged up from 35% in 1997 to a projected 42% today. (In the U.S., it's 29%.) The Tories should be promising big tax relief, as Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush did. Instead they're offering a paltry $7.5 billion in cuts, just 0.6% of the budget.
The second issue the Tories should be hammering is the European Union. Blair has tried to have it both ways by backing the controversial new EU constitution but not taking a stance on whether Britain should adopt the euro. He has also supported NATO while backing an EU defense force that would compete with NATO. The Conservatives are against the EU currency, the EU constitution and the EU army, but they've soft-pedaled those issues because of divisions in their own ranks.
The third issue tailor-made for the Tories is defense. Although Blair has made frequent use of the military in Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan and Iraq the defense budget has not risen in absolute terms in the last decade. Last year, his government announced cutbacks in the number of its soldiers, warships and aircraft. The British army will be reduced to its smallest level since the First Afghan War of 1839.
Admittedly the Tories have some credibility problems in all these areas because of the disastrous John Major government, which took Britain further into the EU, raised taxes and cut the defense budget. But Major has been out of office since 1997 long enough for the Tories to have recovered. The reason they haven't is that they've been focused more on political posturing than on principled policies. As Bruce Anderson writes in the Spectator, Britain's leading conservative magazine: "For the past seven weeks, the Tories have been suffering the consequences of seven years' timidity."
There's a lesson here for the Democrats as they chart their way out of the political wilderness: Now is the time to do some hard thinking on the big issues rather than simply trying to sex up their marketing.