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BLANKLEY: Is it still good to be the boss?

Democracies appear poised to enter an era of anti-incumbency

- The Washington Times - Monday, September 12, 2011

Since the end of World War II, in both the United States and Western Europe, the best way to win a national election has been to be the incumbent political party. But that 3-generation-old predisposition in Western democracies may be coming to an end.

We may well be entering a political epoch in which the best way to win a national election in the West is not to be the party in power.

For the past 65 years, the world economic order has been vastly favorable to the West's middle-class citizens and voters with their incomes going up steadily or at least flattening at a predictable and comfortable material level. Moreover, the middle-class fears of economic hardship was virtually eliminated by the existence of the welfare safety net.

Thus, while incumbent governments eventually get defeated because of scandals or simply having worn out their welcome, general public satisfaction with economic conditions has benefited existing governments that as matter of course are seen to be delivering such prosperity.

As a result, in the United States - with the exception of Jimmy Carter, whose victory was a fluke resulting from of the Watergate scandal - neither the Democratic nor Republican Party has held the White House for less than eight years in a row since World War II. Similarly in Britain, the Conservative and the Labor parties have traded periods of rule of 13, 15, 18 and 13 years' duration (again, with one short exception) since World War II. Germany, likewise, has traded long durations of leadership between the Christian Democratic and Social Democratic parties of 22, eight and 16 years. Chancellor Angela Merkel is in her seventh year. France gave its Gaullist Party 23 straight years of rule followed by the Socialist Party's 14 straight years of rule.

It is this long tradition to which living memory cannot recall an alternative that has guided the assumption that incumbent presidents and premiers are favored in re-election.

Also, whether consciously or not, it is this expectation of re-election (in the absence of scandal or other shocking development) that has tended to induce Western governments to kick policy cans down the road rather than risk unlikely defeat by bold shifts of policy.

But if my theory is right, the electoral ground is shifting under the feet of elected leaders of the United States, France, Germany, Britain, Spain, Portugal, Finland, the Netherlands and most of the rest of the democratic world.

In virtually all the democratic countries, the current elected leaders are at 40 percent or below in job-approval ratings. Sixty-eight percent of French voters want to replace Nicolas Sarkozy. The Italian government coalition under Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi suffered a crushing defeat in local elections a few months ago. British Prime Minister David Cameron has climbed back up to a mere 40 percent approval level after cutting short his vacation to come back and talk tough about London rioters.

This anti-incumbent bias against Western democratic governments will grow and persist until the correlation of world economic forces are seen once again to be favorable - or at least satisfactory - to the middle class. This is a mighty challenge.

The emergence of a more or less fungible world labor market means that Western wages will continue to be pulled down by the 2 billion potential new workers in China and India. The instantaneous movement of capital worldwide puts grinding pressure on Western employers and employees to be ever more productive. The deleveraging of excess debt - both public and private - in the United States and the rest of the West also is probably going to continue to create economic agony for more than a decade.

Once it becomes understood by Western politicians that incumbency is likely to lead to defeat, not re-election, a positive side effect is likely to be bold, even desperate policy initiatives by incumbents.

President Obama may be the last American president (for the duration of this anti-incumbent epoch I am predicting) who will permit himself to be stuck in a passive condition and assume that the trappings of incumbency will naturally lead to his re-election.

Whether they are socialist or free-market politicians, we are likely to see them press hard in the near future for more vivid versions of their policy proposals. Kicking the can down the road will be seen as risky - not safe - politics. We are just beginning to see hints of this on the Medicare issue.

We also should expect to see ever-stronger third parties. This is already happening in Europe, which does not have the strong two-party tradition we have in the United States. But it will happen in the U.S. as well - and sooner than we may expect.

These third parties are likely to have eclectic policy combinations. For example, the fast-emerging True Finn Party in Finland is a mix of cultural (ethnic/religious) conservatism and hostility to the European Union, but pro-social benefits for Finns. The hallmark of third parties will be nationalistic and "do what it takes" economically to protect the middle class from the global pressures.

If we are lucky in the United States, this will be a historic opportunity for the re-emergence of a starkly deregulated free market.

President Obama has enacted in his first two years - and is in the process of politically road testing - a classic, big, statist government response to economic hardship. Unless it succeeds beyond expectation, Mr. Obama will have established a failed template against which future economic proposals will be aggressively contrasted.

Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal never could have been sold to the public in the absence of the perceived failure of Hooverism. Deregulated free markets would not be given a serious reconsideration across the political spectrum without the imminently manifest failure of the Obama model.

Tony Blankley is the author of "American Grit: What It Will Take to Survive and Win in the 21st Century" (Regnery, 2009) and vice president of the Edelman public relations firm in Washington.

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