As Washington insiders pore over the latest low job-approval ratings for George W. Bush, and as aficionados of British politics ponder the latest low ratings of Tony Blair, let's take a longer look at the political ebb and flow in America and Britain over the last quarter century or so. There is a certain parallelism.
In the late 1970s, both countries experienced something like collapse -- a collapse of the Keynesian economics dominant in the post-World War II years, a collapse of the accommodationist foreign policy prevailing since the setback in Vietnam.
From that collapse arose two improbable leaders on the political right: Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. By conventional standards, they were unacceptable: Thatcher was a woman, Reagan a septuagenarian -- and both were too far to the right. Their policies were attacked as hardhearted and reckless. But they worked. Economic growth resumed, Britain triumphed in the Falklands, and America prevailed in the Cold War. Thatcher lasted 11 years in office, Reagan eight -- both were followed by lukewarm but clearly right successors, John Major for seven years and George H.W. Bush for four.
The policy and political success of the parties of the right in time produced a center-left response from the opposition. Bill Clinton in America and Tony Blair in Britain largely accepted the Reagan and Thatcher policies and promised modifications at the margins. A successful formula: Clinton won in 1992 and 1996, and served eight years; Blair won in 1997, 2001 and 2005, and has now been in office more than nine years.
When you look back at all these leaders' job ratings in office, you find an interesting thing. The transformational Thatcher and Reagan had negative to neutral job ratings during most of their longer years in power. Thatcher's peaked upward after the Falklands victory; Reagan peaked from his re-election until the Iran-Contra scandal broke two years later. Their divisiveness, the stark alternative they presented with the policies and conventional wisdom of the past -- all these held down their job ratings.
In contrast, Blair and Clinton for most of their years in office had quite high job ratings. Blair's ratings for his first eight years were probably the highest in British history. Clinton, after he got over his lurch to the left in 1993-94, also enjoyed high job ratings, especially when he was threatened with impeachment. The center-left alternative, by accepting most of the Thatcher and Reagan programs, was relatively uncontroversial, determinedly consensus-minded, widely acceptable to the left, center-left and much of the center-right segments of the electorate.