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Elections in the English way

Published Oct. 1, 2005

I am with Robert Browning, who wrote, "Oh, to be in England now that April's there."

He was talking spring. I am talking elections _ Britain's is just getting under way. Spring is one thing that Washington does perfectly. We are awash in tender green shoots and delicate blossoms. But Washington, as we are reminded every day, does elections abominably. Those who say there has to be a better way are right. England's way.

At his St. Patrick's Day lunch, the British ambassador, Sir John Kerr, introduced Americans to scores of British and Irish politicians from whom they heard about the joys of the short campaign and the strict limits on expenditures. Michael Ancram, the minister for Northern Ireland, explained to open-mouthed journalists that as a candidate for re-election to Parliament, he cannot spend more than $14,000, buy any television time or advertise his candidacy on television. The lore in Washington is that those who spend a million dollars for a seat in our House are much likelier to succeed than those who don't.

The British do not allow their national campaigns to run more than six weeks.

Britain is geared to low-tech means for conveying political messages. Billboards, those relics of the horse-and-buggy era, are a big item, and Labor candidate Tony Blair has been criticized for hogging them. They also do a great deal of direct mail.

The British are spared our stomach-turning negative ads. This year, Tories are raising eyebrows with what is considered a vigorous assault on Blair. Over a caption that says, "New Labour, New Danger," it shows a masked Blair grinning maniacally, supposedly in anticipation of devouring voters. It's a far cry from Willie Horton.

Sen. Max Cleland, D-Ga., who spent $3.5-million against a rival who spent $10-million ($7-million of it his own), is much drawn to the British way. A member of the Governmental Affairs Committee, which is investigating the election scandals, he anticipates that the public will hear things about its politicians "that will make us throw up." And he anticipates a sharp jump in shadiness with an increase of the "independent expenditures," the dodge whereby a bunch of millionaires in Wyoming can form a committee calling itself "Friends of Georgia" and pour unlimited funds into Georgia's politics. A recent court decision held that the sky is the limit in such cases, where there is no contaminating contact with a candidate.

But the Senate's leading _ and come to think of it, only _ intellectual, Daniel P. Moynihan of New York, says we can at most envy the British system; we cannot emulate it. The British, he points out, do not have a legislature like ours. Under the parliamentary form, all members of each party vote the party line.

"It sounds idyllic," he observes, "but there are 24 bars in Westminster _ there is nothing else for members of Parliament to do but drink."

Also, we have fixed elections, every four years on the first Tuesday in November. We cannot limit campaigns. The British do, because elections are called at the pleasure of the prime minister.

We are stuck with permanent campaigns. Any interference with them would involve infringement of the First Amendment's free-speech rights. We have raised among us a breed that could be called compulsive campaigners. Prime exhibit: the president. How else to explain Bill Clinton's recent action in turning down, at least for now, a revision in the Consumer Price Index, an adjustment that could stabilize Medicare?

The president is forbidden by law to seek re-election, but from that action you might not think so. Asked why he would reject a solution that unblocks other considerations, people explain that the American Association of Retired Persons wouldn't like it. That should be of no consequence to him now.

Or maybe Clinton was trying to do a good turn for Vice President Al Gore, who was lately exposed as a demon fund-raiser and whose potential rival, House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt of Missouri, is against the revision. The point is the same: Campaign considerations impede the orderly conduct of public business.

Moynihan says that if we can't adopt the kinder, gentler British system, "we jolly well better come up with one of our own."

There is stiff resistance to the modest reforms of the McCain-Feingold bill. At least it would give free television time to candidates. The excesses of the Clinton White House can be directly traced to the year of television commercials dictated by Dick Morris, the scoundrel who is now moralizing on talk shows _ and terrorizing Republicans by saying that he was there when they made forbidden fund-raising calls.

Too bad we can't pass laws that would save a president from himself.

Universal Press Syndicate