Is Tony Blair deceiving himself?

What John Kerry as president would mean for the American-British alliance.

Published July 27, 2004 1:40PM (EDT)

Asked to nominate the foreign country about which Tony Blair has most calamitously deceived himself as prime minister, most of us would, I suppose, select Iraq. But you only have to be in America for a short time to be reminded that his most fateful misreading of another nation is of the US. This failing has nothing to do with any shortcomings in intelligence. On the contrary. Getting America wrong counts as an entirely political misjudgment, and Blair's fallibility is the more resonant for that. What is more, he is in danger of showing that he does not learn from his mistakes. Four years ago, he read the American mood badly wrong  and now he may be about to do the same thing again.

As the US election of 2000 neared, Blair was always extremely confident: Al Gore, he believed, would be elected to continue Bill Clinton's work. The expectation reflected Blair's instincts and, just as significantly, his own and his coterie's hopes. The combination of a buoyant US economy, budgetary discipline and targeted public support for America's old and needy seemed to offer few incentives for anyone to vote for Gore's untested rightwing challenger.

The prime minister and his courtiers missed a lot that should have been more obvious to them: that the Lewinsky legacy deeply inhibited the Gore campaign, that male voters actively warmed to Bush, that there was an aggressively conservative ideological project at the heart of the apparently inclusive Republican campaign, even that the left  in the shape of Ralph Nader  mattered at the margins. All this was known and knowable at the time  but Blair preferred to ignore the evidence. < p> Posterity will pass a mixed verdict on the efforts of the former British ambassador to Washington, Sir Christopher Meyer, to disabuse Blair of the certainty of Gore's success and to encourage Labour to take Bush seriously. By facing Blair with the facts, Meyer did much to negotiate the exceptionally difficult transition from Clinton to Bush. Yet, in so doing, Meyer also played midwife to the relationship that has all but wrecked the Blair government at home while triggering an enduring crisis of credibility in British foreign policy abroad.

Sir David Manning, Meyer's successor, is much less public about the role he is playing this time around. Yet it is hard not to suspect that the official telegrams from Washington must be offering similarly cautionary and, to London, counter-intuitive advice about the outcome of the 2004 contest as Meyer's did. Once again, the assumption in Downing Street is that incumbency is decisive. Yet, just as in 2000, the facts don't line up so conveniently.

It is high time the political class woke up to the fact that the US polls are giving a pretty consistent message that cannot be dismissed merely because it doesn't fit the streetwise assumption that Bush will win. Yet the reality is that the polling numbers in the Bush-Kerry contest have been saying something strik ingly consistent ever since Kerry emerged as the Democratic contender in March.

That something is that Bush is losing and Kerry is winning. Every national poll this month has had Kerry ahead. Yes, his leads are often narrow and they are frequently within the 3% margin of polling error, but they all show Kerry leading Bush. All the polls show Kerry is between 47%-49%, with Bush around 44%-46%. That's neither commanding nor impregnable for Kerry, but it is very consistent and very bad for Bush.

The other important point is that many of Kerry's strongest gains are in the all- important battleground states. Again, the leads are often within the margin of error, and not every poll says the same thing in every state  notably Florida  but the overall picture is consistent. In a mid-July battleground states poll by Zogby International, Kerry led in every state Gore won in 2000; but he also led, or was within the margin of error, in every battleground state won by Bush. On that basis, Kerry had a 322-216 vote advantage in the electoral college.

This will change many times before November, but it is all taking place within a context. That context, again as expressed in the polls, is that a small but clear majority of Americans consistently say that their country is heading in the wrong direction or that it is time for a change. Last week's Los Angeles Times poll had this figure at 54%, which is fairly typical.

If Kerry can tap deeper into the undecideds among these voters when he addresses the Democratic convention here on Thursday, then he should win in November. It all comes down, many analysts believe, to whether socially conservative, lower middle- class voters in the swing states feel reassured by Kerry. "This election will be decided by Cincinnati housewives," is how Boston College sociologist Professor Alan Wolfe puts it.

It would be astonishing if the British government's America-watchers in Washington were not signalling this real possibility. Go easy, the diplomats are surely cautioning once more. Don't assume that Bush will be re-elected. Prepare for the possibility of President Kerry. That is sound advice, not merely because it makes sense to anticipate all outcomes, but also because Kerry clearly has the advantage in the November 2 match-up.

Downing Street has had to do so much domestic political firefighting of its own over the past few months that its inattention to the US is hardly surprising. The default public position on the Bush-Kerry contest remains that the transatlantic relationship will continue whoever wins in November, and that London never gets involved in another country's internal politics. But it is time for Blair to wise up.

Kerry is on course to become president in January. That does not mean that he will succeed, but it does mean the possibility should be taken more seriously. Blair, one suspects, contents himself with the reflection that the US election is a win-win for his government. If Bush is re-elected, then it is business as usual. If Kerry prevails, then the congruence of values and interests means both sides will be strongly motivated to make the new partnership work. Around Blair it is fashionable to say that a Kerry victory would make little fundamental difference to the international situation. In important respects that is true. Kerry would be conservative in the Middle East, as Democrats generally are, and would not have many new options in Iraq. Welcomed though his election would be in Europe, he is unlikely to persuade any more European nations to help drag the US out of the post- invasion mire.

Strategically, though, this is another repeat error. When Bush came in, Blair catastrophically underestimated the extent of the change  and he still does. Now he appears equally insensitive to the new mood that would be triggered by Bush's defeat. Not all of his colleagues, however, are so relaxed. When I asked one senior cabinet minister last week whether he was hoping for a Kerry victory, he replied in just one word: "desperately." If the polls are right, he may yet get his wish.

By Martin Kettle

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