Blair Shows Gore How to Run on Reform

For a candidate on the brink of what may be a historic landslide, British Prime Minister Tony Blair seems strangely penitent these days. After four years in office, Blair approaches Thursday's election with a solid record of centrist accomplishment: more people working, fewer children in poverty; expanded preschool, reduced class sizes; greater help for the working poor, a new minimum wage. His center-left Labor Party has such an unshakable lead in the polls that former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, the Conservative Party's fearsome grand dame, has been reduced to warning voters that rewarding Labor with too great a victory could produce an "elective dictatorship."

Yet Blair seems anything but exuberant. In his daily appearances, he faintly agonizes to find a balance between claiming improvement in the quality of basic public services and not appearing obtuse to the daily frustrations so many people still experience with schools or the National Health Service, the publicly run universal health care system. "The sense of desire for change, frustration at the pace of change, I share," he said last week, before adding almost plaintively: "But there has been progress." For its closing argument, Labor is betting less on the progress than on a promise to do better next time; late last week it unveiled new posters and billboards that pledged a second Blair term would put "Schools and Hospitals First."

That supremely bread-and-butter message is reminiscent of Democrat Al Gore's promises to devote much of the U.S. budget surplus to education and health care. The similarity isn't too surprising since two top Gore strategists, Bob Shrum and Stan Greenberg, sit side-by-side in the Labor war room helping shape Blair's campaign.

Yet the convergence obscures a critical difference in strategy with important lessons for Democrats. Behind the common priority of greater social investment, Blair is pursuing a riskier, but ultimately more rewarding, balance between spending and reform--an approach that more frankly acknowledges the skepticism about government's effectiveness that still clouds support for new programs on both sides of the Atlantic.

While Gore had some government reform ideas (particularly in education), he said little about them and placed much more emphasis on new spending. During the 2000 campaign, Gore offered nothing comparable to Bill Clinton's 1992 promise to "end welfare as we know it." At times Gore's message collapsed into little more than a pledge to pour more new money into old government programs than George W. Bush. That allowed Bush--remarkably, given the Clinton administration's success in eliminating the federal deficit--to effectively portray Gore as a throwback to big-government liberalism.

Blair--having forced his party to the center under the same "third way" banner as Clinton--is determined not to let the Conservative Party here do the same to him. After tightly controlling spending during his first two years in office, he's now promising big increases for health, education and transportation. But he unwaveringly ties those spending promises to demands for fundamental reform. "I've got no doubt at all after four years' experience of government that the changes and reforms of public services are every bit as important as the additional money," he said last week.

Strikingly, Blair, the incumbent, has talked about more radical government reforms than his Tory challengers. During the campaign, he's repeatedly said he wants local community groups (including the same faith-based charities President Bush is touting) and even private companies to play a larger role in delivering services, particularly in the schools and the National Health Service.

Blair hasn't fleshed out exactly what that means. His first-term education reforms allowed private firms to manage failing schools and also permitted business and community groups to open the equivalent of charter schools. In health care, the party manifesto promises greater use of private doctors to reduce the backlog of patients awaiting operations in the health system. But the emphasis on private sector involvement is probably better read as a general determination to shake up the public bureaucracies than a commitment to a specific means of doing so.

"Blair has been increasingly convinced of the need to link structural change with public investment," says Tom Bentley, a former Labor policy advisor who now directs Demos, a center-left think tank. The problem, he adds, is that Blair and his aides "still don't know what the structural change ought to be."

Even without the details, Blair's aggressive talk of reform has frightened his party's liberal base; the public employee unions are in virtual revolt. That unhappiness carries the danger of reduced turnout among Labor's core supporters, probably a greater threat than any late conversion toward the Tories.

Yet Blair is entirely willing to bear that risk, partly because his reform emphasis has denied the Tories the chance to lash him with the same big-spending arguments that Bush used against Gore. Even more important, after four years in office, Blair seems genuinely frustrated at the pace of change his government has inspired. He appears to recognize that the greatest long-term threat to his parliamentary majority may be a disillusionment about basic government services that eventually reopens voters to the Conservatives' small-government, low-tax arguments.

The general sense here is that Labor has made much more progress on improving education--where the government has had a comprehensive reform strategy--than on health care. But on both fronts, polls make clear voters see more to be done--for good reason. Within a matter of hours Thursday, a spokesman for school principals suggested schools were mired at a "third world" level and an official in the British Medical Assn. said care in the health system's hospitals had deteriorated to where doctors wouldn't rely on them for their own families.

Those assessments seem more than a bit overwrought. Yet they help explain Blair's resolute insistence on change. It's tempting to see in Blair's coming victory the unruffled course Gore might have sailed without the scandal that swamped Clinton. But Blair's emphasis on reform, even at the cost of baiting his base, underscores Gore's contribution to his own defeat. Gore, a more conventional liberal than Clinton or Blair, surrendered the high road of reform and lost. Blair has indivisibly linked new money to new thinking and is heading toward a landslide that ought to cause congressional Democrats--already replicating Gore's overemphasis on increased spending--to take notice.

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