WASHINGTON — The Republicans are putting a lot of faith into the theory that Britain and the United States have far more in common this election year than two battered currencies, sex scandals in high places and a recession that won't go away. The new buzz phrase around the Bush-Quayle campaign staff is "the British scenario," otherwise known as the John Major miracle.
For George Bush, the Major story must read like a fairy tale. It starts with an unpopular government that is facing an election while presiding over a prolonged and stubborn economic slump. The government is no longer run by the charismatic Cold Warrior who led through the 1980s and restored national confidence with a breezy, free-market ideology.
Instead, they are now led by a lesser figure, rather gray, rather unconvincing, who does not seem to believe in anything much and has no inspiring vision of a future to offer. He is burdened by a big budget deficit. The opinion polls all agree that voters have no future to offer him. But the story has a happy ending.
Major, the British prime minister who followed Margaret Thatcher, confounded all the opinion polls and stunned all the pundits, to win his election in April. He did so with the help of the American consultant Roger Ailes, who is now back in the bosom of the Bush-Quayle campaign, and telling them how Major did it.
The Republicans' interest in the Major scenario is understandable. If he could pull it off, runs the argument, so can Bush. If Major could overcome the political albatross of the unpopular poll tax, then Bush can survive that broken pledge of "No New Taxes." So the Bush-Quayle campaign staff is now poring over the ads and speeches and policies of the Conservative Party's campaign. You can already hear the echo.
"I ask this nation to look at my record of service and my ideals for this country, and to place their trust in me," went Major's stump speech. Ah yes, the Trust Thing. Sound familiar?
Or consider the Conservative attack on the Labor Party as tax and spenders. On April 2, the week before the election, Major led the attack on Labor's tax plans, warning of the awful economic effect of a Conservative defeat.
"I warn the tens of millions who gained under this Conservative government. Just stop, listen and think. Dare you trust your home, your pension, your savings, your shares, to the Labor Party?" Major challenged.
If there was desperation in Major's voice, it was because that day's polls showed him trailing Labor by seven points. It was time for desperate measures, for Britain's version of family values, blended with the tax-and-spend nightmare. If Americans thought they heard rather a lot about family values at the Republican Convention in Houston, they should have heard Major in April.
"Labor's tax plans would be a massacre of the innocents by the ignorant. It is a nightmare prospect for family after family after family," he said. "It is my absolute belief that the basis of society is the individual family, and that is where the decisions should primarily be made."
Connoisseurs of the British election campaign had to rub their eyes in disbelief at that touching scene when the GOP congressmen handed Bush boxing gloves and invited him to start swinging.
Where had we seen that before? Ah yes, the Conservative Party's billboard campaign, "Labor's Double Whammy." It showed two big boxing gloves coming straight out of the poster. On the right-hand glove was written "More Taxes," and on the left, "Higher Prices."
Taxes and family, family and taxes. It worked for Major, and if the American voters can be dissuaded from asking whether they would buy a secondhand political campaign from this man, it might work for Bush too. And Bush and Major have something more than campaign themes and slogans in common.
In spite of all the differences between America's year-long election campaign and Britain's brisk three weeks, the two countries have tracked one another's voting habits with remarkable precision throughout most of the postwar era.
The Democratic President Harry S. Truman had his counterpart in Labor, Clement Attlee. Then the Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower enjoyed the company of three Conservative prime ministers, Winston Churchill, Anthony Eden and Harold Macmillan.
The team of a Democratic President and Labor prime minister was interrupted for three atypical years in John F. Kennedy's time, but restored with Lyndon B. Johnson in the White House and Harold Wilson in No. 10 Downing Street. And the Republican Richard M. Nixon had the company of the Conservative Edward Heath, while the Democrat Jimmy Carter had congenial Labor Prime Minister Jim Callaghan.
And then came the soul mates, Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, one of history's great mutual admiration societies, the ultimate dream-team. No wonder Bush took heart from Major's reelection, and no wonder the two men get on so well. History would hardly have it otherwise.