Two years ago, two leaders dragged their countries to war in Iraq. George W. Bush did so with unanimous support from his own party and with the backing of a solid majority of Americans in the opinion polls. Tony Blair faced a rebellion within his own party, hundreds of thousands of protesters in the streets and, within just a few months, a tawdry scandal about a weapons scientist, David Kelly, whose suicide nearly brought down the government.
Now compare their electoral fortunes. Two weeks before last year's U.S. presidential election, the race looked too close to call -- and it ended up depending on a mere 70,000 voters in Ohio. Today, two weeks before the British election, nobody believes Blair is going to lose, let alone have to stay up all night to see what happens.
How on Earth has he done it? It is not as if voters have forgiven him for Iraq. Opposition to the war remains extremely high throughout the country.
And that's not the only mark against him. Eight years ago, his Labor Party was swept into office on a tidal wave of revulsion at Conservative Party sleaze and incompetence. This time around, the revulsion is directed against Labor -- and its habit of constructing an alternative reality out of spin and hype.
Even Laborites admit that the Conservatives have run their best campaign in a decade, talking tough on "dog-whistle" issues such as crime and immigration (in which their core supporters respond instinctively, even if you cannot hear the whistle). Blair has been sufficiently panicked by their assault to cozy up to Gordon Brown, his brooding chancellor of the exchequer and Labor Party rival.
And yet nobody is betting on a Tory victory. Why? Because the Conservatives have failed to make a case for change. Michael Howard, the Tory leader, is a good public speaker with a lawyer's forensic skills. But, even with the help of a notably glamorous wife, he still lacks the human touch. He has no vision, no story line, no compelling argument for dumping Blair.
The prevailing feeling is that the Tories have not quite recovered from the civil war in their party that began with the fall of Margaret Thatcher in 1990. They still have not resolved their splits over Britain's integration with the rest of Europe or how they should reform Britain's huge welfare state. Just before the election, Howard ousted from the party a member of Parliament who claimed that the Tories had a secret agenda to cut public services dramatically.
But Howard's failure to construct a vision is also a testament to Blair's extraordinary political skills. Once again, there is a contrast with the U.S. -- Bush won by consolidating his base, while Blair has clung to the middle ground. Indeed, it is his dogged determination to occupy the center that has left the Tories without a clear message.
Blair has caved in to the left of his party on some issues -- banning fox hunting, for instance. He has also craftily added various stealth taxes to pay for a spending splurge. But on the three big issues that normally help Conservatives -- national security, crime and the economy -- he has steered to the right, refusing to raise the basic rate of income tax, cracking down hard on British yobs (drunken hoodlums) and foreign terrorist suspects, and running a pro-American foreign policy.
All these things have cost him dearly with his natural supporters; Labor may lose some seats this year to the Liberal Democrats. But Blair has successfully neutralized Howard's most powerful weapons. Even on Iraq. The Tories do not know whether to proclaim themselves good Atlanticists and support the Anglo-American endeavor or attack an unpopular war.
There is one more reason why the Tories are almost bound to lose: an electoral system that is grotesquely biased in favor of the Labor Party. Thanks to a mixture of canny redistricting and fortunate demography, Labor has managed to spread out its core voters across more parliamentary districts and also concentrate them in marginal seats.
Most polls show Labor about five points ahead of the Tories. But imagine if the two parties tied in the popular vote: Blair's party would still win more than 100 more seats than the Tories and have an absolute majority of about 60 -- and he would stay on as prime minister. And you thought the result of the 2000 presidential election was unfair!
This is not to say that Labor has a lock on power until kingdom come. If the Tories don't quite look ready for this race, Labor looks increasingly like a runner who is destined to collapse just after he has won. Even now the party looks tired: morally exhausted by the culture of spin, intellectually exhausted by eight years of triangulating between the right and the left, and psychologically exhausted by the Blair-Brown wars.
One day all this will catch up with Labor. In the election after this one, a revitalized Tory Party may sweep back into power, much as Blair did in 1997. By coincidence, Blair says this will be his last election; his "chum" Gordon probably will have to fight the next one.