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Losing Ground: THE CONSERVATIVE ALLIANCE RECEDES

June 23, 1991|Kevin Phillips | Kevin Phillips, publisher of the American Political Report, is author of "The Politics of Rich and Poor" (Random House)

WASHINGTON — The imperious presence of Margaret Thatcher, no longer Britain's prime minister, won't be the only thing missing when President George Bush and the other "Group of Seven" leaders assemble in London for July's economic summit. The upbeat economic confidence of the 1980s has vanished. The leaders will focus instead on this year's scary agenda--how to avoid a trade war, a deeper global recession and the possible economic breakdown of the Soviet Union.

But a political threat will also be hanging over the economic summiteers. The great conservative tide of the 1980s is receding--with Thatcher among its first losses--and even Bush and the GOP are in more danger than they realize. Because most of the conservative G-7 leaders sitting down to discuss world affairs will be looking over their shoulders at home-front electoral jeopardies, international economic cooperation isn't likely to continue.

It's a truism that the tumultuous decade now unfolding may favor nationalism over internationalism. What's less understood by diplomats--and even U.S. Presidents--preoccupied with international affairs is the potential disruption of grubby domestic politics and election calendars from London to Tokyo. This is already forcing G-7 leaders to forget togetherness and start concentrating on parochial considerations and opinion-poll results.

For Washington and the GOP White House, stakes couldn't be higher. The war some now predict between Japan and the United States or Japan and Europe could become economic realities--or worse. Bush's grandiose "new world order" could crumble like President Woodrow Wilson's naive ambitions to reshape the world after World War I. Emerging continental trade blocs could cripple multilateral free-trade frameworks. The Soviet Union and Eastern Europe could emerge as proving grounds of resurgent ethnic nationalism, not revitalized free-market economics. And the life coming back into left-of-center politics worldwide could threaten the GOP--despite the Democrats' ineptitude.

Economic collaboration will be undercut if British, French, German, Italian, Canadian, Japanese and U.S. leaders instead focus on domestic political crises and national elections. Virtually all the presidents and prime ministers due in London will confront just such a predicament.

For example, Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic (conservative) Party will select a new leader in October, and experts expect Toshiki Kaifu, the prime minister, to be forced out. Britain's embattled ruling Conservative Party, 10 points behind the rival Labor Party in the polls, is also in a leadership crisis. There's growing doubt that Prime Minister John Major, Thatcher's hapless successor, has the stature to keep his party in power in the general elections expected in spring, 1992.

In Canada, too, the governing Conservatives are in big trouble, trailing both opposition parties--the Liberals and the socialist New Democrats--in the polls. To make matters worse, the Conservative Party is itself coming unglued--supporters in western Canada have started a new "Reform Party." Canadian Gallup polls earlier this year showed even the Reform group pulling ahead of the Conservatives.

As for Germany's ruling conservative Christian Democrats (CDU), so far this year, they've lost three state elections--enabling the opposition Social Democrats to take control of the upper house of parliament. Chancellor Helmut Kohl's popularity has dropped to the 30% range and, even though national elections aren't required for several years, they could be forced at any time if the Free Democrats--now in coalition with the CDU--decided to organize a new government with the Social Democrats.

In volatile France--where conservatives took over the National Assembly, in 1986, and lost it again, in 1988--the possibility of an election is always present. This is also true of Italy, currently run by a multiparty coalition that includes the conservative Christian Democrats.

Bush, in fact, is the last conservative national leader in the G-7 with relatively solid domestic political fortunes. But he does not appreciate how much political economics have changed elsewhere--how different things are from just 4 years ago. Then, conservatives seemed to be taking over everywhere; editorial writers from London to Tokyo were discussing a worldwide capitalist tide. These two trends went together, and the ascendant conservative politicians knew what they shared--not just capitalist ideologies and agendas of tax reduction, deregulation and privatization, but also business and upper-bracket constituencies.

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