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GOP shouldn't be so quick to find hope in British experience

Dulles International Airport has been importing some unusual cargo in recent weeks. British political wisdom, in the form of officials from the Conservative Party, has been arriving at Bush-Quayle headquarters in regular batches from London.

They have been telling Republican campaign chairman Robert Teeter and others how they pulled off a shock victory for a right-of-center incumbent in the face of both polls and pundits. It's a message Republicans are only too grateful to hear.

As soon as Bill Clinton opened up his lead over President Bush, the analogy with the unexpected re-election of British Prime Minister John Major gained currency in conservative circles. Those who favor it like to conclude, "If Major could do it, so can Bush."

At first glance, they have a point. Britain's Tories managed to win during a period of desperate economic gloom _ the same task the GOP faces. After nearly 13 years in power, they were identified with the status quo when "time for a change" was the theme of the moment _ just as the Republicans are now. Their candidate was an uninspiring, bespectacled successor to one of the most charismatic leaders in the country's history (Major suffered from comparisons with Margaret Thatcher no less than Bush pales next to Ronald Reagan.) Yet despite everything, Major won.

The Conservative formula was simple: Ignore the polls, hammer the other guy's tax policy, and insist that a move to the left is a move backward. But what worked for them may well fail the Republicans, if only because the analogy between Britain in April and America in November doesn't really hold up.

For one thing, the numbers are just too different. Admittedly, the Labor Party was ahead in the polls for the entire campaign and for several months before. But Labor's lead never topped 7 percent and was usually less than half that _ no bigger than the standard margin of error. In contrast, Clinton has enjoyed a solid 10 percent since July, and several polls have given him a 20-plus lead.

The success of Conservative attacks on Labor's tax proposals also may lose something in translation. Labor leader Neil Kinnock wanted to raise the taxes of the top 20 percent of Britons, while Bill Clinton's plans are aimed at only the top 2 percent. As a result, John Major's scaremongering on taxation cut a lot deeper with the British middle class than Bush's use of the tactic will here.

The same is true of the GOP's "gray dot" TV ad, depicting the Two Bill Clintons and their policy flip-flops. The Conservatives deployed a similar weapon against Kinnock. It worked because British voters had seen Kinnock's flip-flops for themselves. He, after all, had been Labor leader since 1983, and so all his political U-turns-on defense, on economic deregulation _ were taken in the public gaze.

Bill Clinton has been a national figure for only a year: What we know of his policy vacillations is only what we've been told. Inevitably, Bush's attack ads, often resting on obscure remarks and decisions by the Arkansas governor, cannot compete for impact with Major's onslaught, which tapped into a view of his opponent that existed long before the election campaign.

This, in turn, blunts the claim that a vote for the opposition is a lurch to the unpatriotic left. There was a distinct sense of deja vu attached to the Washington Times' revelation this week of Clinton's "unusual" 1969 trip to Moscow in the "dead of winter." The pro-Conservative Sunday Times of London published a comparable story a few weeks before Election Day, promoted on billboards across Britain as "Kinnock's Kremlin Connection." It had little impact among voters, who saw it as a smear and who now view KGB high-jinks as the stuff of John le Carre novels rather than serious political debate.

The more mild claim _ that Kinnock was a leftist _ did hit home however. He always described himself as a socialist and could never shake off associations with old Eastern European-style command-and-control economics, despite his having dragged Labor to the political center.

Clinton, however, won his position on the national stage only after he had shifted his party rightward. Cries of "social engineer" tend to bounce off a man first introduced to the public as a party moderate, and singularly lacking the left-wing pedigree of Kinnock.

Ultimately, it may be a difference in political culture that will deprive those in search of an American version of Britain's April surprise. John Major could argue that the recession was a product of world economic forces, largely outside Westminster's control _ and get away with it. Not without pain, Britons have come to learn that they are no longer an imperial power and that not everything that happens in the world is up to them or their government.

Americans still believe they are masters of not only their fate, but also the destiny of the world. A society that gives its president credit for the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War will inevitably blame him for pink slips and low wages. Major survived because British voters held him responsible for less of both good and bad. For Bush to be as fortunate, he'll have to consider a new career _ in British politics.

Freedland is the 1992 Laurence Stern Fellow, writing for the national pages of the Washington Post. In December he returns to London, where he is a reporter for the BBC.

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