Last week's British election was important as much for what didn't happen as for what did. The opposition Conservative Party won the most votes, but it didn't win a clear majority of seats in Parliament. The third-party Liberal Democrats, who hoped to surge into second place ahead of the deflated Labor government, fell short. As British television pundits noted, it was a reverse trifecta: All three parties lost.
All politics is local, of course, but Britain's grouchy electorate sent a message that has echoes in the rest of Europe and even the United States: Voters aren't looking for massive change right now; they're looking for leaders who can find a safe way out of a deep economic crisis that never seems to end.
Thirty years ago, when Ronald Reagan won an election in the United States on the heels of Margaret Thatcher's victory in Britain, it was possible to talk about a wave of conservative politics sweeping the Western world — especially since Reagan and Thatcher shared a common passion for downsizing the liberal welfare state. Thirteen years ago, when Tony Blair's modernized Labor Party won its first majority in Britain, Blair and Bill Clinton talked grandly about their "Third Way," a loosely shared approach to governing from the center.
But this year, politics in the United States and Europe seem distinctly out of sync.
When Barack Obama won the presidency amid popular enthusiasm on both sides of the Atlantic, European social democrats hoped that the Democrats' success meant their time had come too. That didn't happen; Europe has seen no swing to the left. Indeed, if Britain's Tories form the next government in London, Western Europe's four biggest countries — Britain, Germany, France and Italy — will all have conservative leaders for the first time in decades. At the next U.S.-European summit, Obama will be the odd man out.
Obama is still personally popular in Europe, but the Obama phenomenon hasn't been successfully transplanted into anyone else's domestic politics. European politicians who have tried to replicate his success have failed. Two years ago, Italy's opposition candidate, Walter Veltroni, brashly cast himself as Rome's Obama and was soundly drubbed by the scandal-ridden conservative, Silvio Berlusconi. In Britain, the charismatic young leader of the centrist Liberal Democrats, Nick Clegg, was hailed as another Obama after a brilliant performance in a television debate — but his party still came in a disappointing third and actually lost seats in Parliament. (Nevertheless, because neither Labor nor the Conservatives won a majority of seats, Clegg now gets to be the kingmaker.)The European leader whose policies most closely resemble Obama's, Jose Luis Zapatero of Spain, has seen his popularity slump, just like Obama's.
Does that mean Western politics is in the midst of a broad ideological swing to the right? Not really. Europe's successful conservative politicians — Angela Merkel of Germany, Nicolas Sarkozy of France, the dogged Berlusconi in Italy and now David Cameron in Britain — are no axis of anything. They don't hold joint conferences on continent-wide economic or social policy. Most of the time, they hardly speak to each other. Merkel is said to be furious at Cameron for his standoffish policies toward the European Union. Inside the EU, Merkel and Sarkozy have formed a loose alliance, but it's pragmatic, not ideological. And nobody wants to be seen with Berlusconi.
More relevant for Americans, these successful European conservatives aren't talking about "tea parties." Britain's Cameron, for example, campaigned to reduce the size of government but not to cut taxes. He has proposed reforming Britain's National Health Service by bringing in more competition from outside providers but not to dismantle the single-payer system. He's an environmentalist and, in American terms, a "compassionate conservative"; if he were a Republican, he'd be closer to Mitt Romney than to Sarah Palin.
The problem all these politicians face, including Obama, is a short-term economic crisis that is colliding with a long-term fiscal crisis. They all face mounting bills for healthcare and pensions (Social Security, in our case) at a time when the global recession has reduced their governments' tax revenues. They all face the challenge of cutting budgets at a time when demand for government services is high.
In frightening economic times, voters yearn for security, not audacity. That's one reason for the electoral success of all those cautious conservatives in Europe, and for the declining popularity of Obama's most ambitious (and expensive) proposals in the United States.
In that sense, at least, this is a conservative moment — on both sides of the Atlantic.