The Magazine

When Tony Meets George

Bush and Blair will turn out to have a lot in common.

Feb 26, 2001, Vol. 6, No. 23 • By IRWIN M. STELZER
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BRITISH PRIME MINISTER Tony Blair comes to America this week to meet our new president, and the P.M.'s team is worried. Blair's fondness for Third Way schmoozing with Bill Clinton, his justified gratitude for the role Clinton played in stitching together a semi-peace in Ireland, and his natural center-left leanings made him an ideal partner for the outgoing administration, and gave him clear reason for hoping that Al Gore would be the next president.

Yet it may prove not to be such a bad thing for U.S.-U.K. relations that the prime minister's wish didn't come to pass. Although Gore as a Clinton clone appealed to the prime minister, the class warfare of the Gore campaign definitely did not. Blair has spent huge amounts of political capital, and risked his career to pull his Labour party away from its historic hatred of the rich and successful. He sees himself as every bit as much the leader of Middle England as of the declining band of industrial workers who populate Britain's trade unions.

What has escaped most observers is that Blair's New Labour creed is not all that different from Bush's compassionate conservatism. True, center-left Blair and center-right Bush differ as to the overall role of government in the economy and in the private lives of citizens (still "subjects" in Britain). Thanks to the tax burden on the British people that Blair's chancellor of the exchequer, Gordon Brown, has stealthily increased, government in that country claims for itself about 40 percent of all the goods and services the economy can produce -- and rising. Since the figure is higher on the continent, Blair thinks it a modest impost.

Bush, of course, inherits a government that claims only about half that portion of the national income, and deems even that too much. Hence Bush's tax cut, which he proposed for government-shrinking, supply-side, incentive-creating reasons (and the anti-recessionary virtues he discovered only recently).

This difference as to the role of government, however, cannot obscure important similarities on domestic policy that should help the two leaders to find common ground when they spend the weekend together at Camp David. The president has put education at the top of his list, as has the prime minister, who famously declared his priorities to be "education, education, education," and last week told a meeting of head teachers: "Any government with any sense is going to make education its number one priority," adding -- shades of Bush -- that his "desire [is] to lift every child." Blair has pushed for national tests, with the results of each school's performance to be published, and for the closing of substandard schools, to be replaced by privately sponsored "City Academies."

The Blairites and the Bushies also think alike on welfare reform. Many of the Blair team are big fans of former governor (now secretary of health and human services) Tommy Thompson's welfare-to-work program: One of Blair's top aides recently argued to me that Britain's "welfare state now has an 'employment first' principle built into its operation," no small achievement for a party that still has a substantial bloc of old-left politicians and activists who view the dole as an entitlement, means testing as an insult, and an insistence that the able-bodied go to work as a form of capitalist exploitation. If any proof is needed that ideas travel, check the itineraries of the Blair policy wonks who have scoured the United States for ideas they might adopt to reform their nation's welfare system.

Finally, little separates Blair and Bush on the role of the private sector in the delivery of social services. The compassionate conservative's reliance on "faith-based organizations" is not very different from New Labour's encouragement of Muslim, Christian, and Jewish organizations to run many schools, and its reliance on the private sector to deliver services to the elderly and what it prefers to call "at-risk children" -- carefully avoiding making it clear just who is at risk from these children!

So Blair may miss Clinton's ability to enfold him in the cuddly jargon of the Third Way -- which never really was much more than new wine in old bottles. And Bush may know that he is entertaining a head of state who rather wishes Gore was at Camp David instead of teaching journalism at closed-to-the-press seminars at Columbia University, and that he -- Bush -- was still in Texas, a place like most others in America that Blair has never visited, and must imagine to be far less desirable than the politician-laden Washington he finds so congenial.