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Jewish World Review May 21, 2001 / 28 Iyar, 5761

Michael Barone

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Italian lessons: Why Silvio Berlusconi's victory affects America, too --
THE surprisingly decisive victory for Silvio Berlusconi and his center-right coalition in Italy last week has important implications for American policy in Europe–and for American politics at home. Five years ago, a center-left coalition beat Berlusconi's group, running even in popular votes, 42 percent to 42 percent, but winning parliamentary majorities because of a split between Berlusconi and the once separatist Northern League. This time the Northern League was part of the center-right coalition, which led the center-left 50 percent to 40 percent. Why did Berlusconi, reputedly Italy's richest man and owner of three of its six major TV networks, win? Because he promised to pare back Italy's overlarge, officious state apparatus–cambiare, change, as Berlusconi voters put it in pre-election interviews in Rome.

In the 1990s, victories for center-left candidates like Bill Clinton, Tony Blair in Britain, and Gerhard Schroeder in Germany prompted many to say that the era of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan was over, that voters no longer demanded cuts in government. Now, with the victories of Berlusconi, George W. Bush, and Vicente Fox in Mexico, that prediction seems premature.

Italy's center-left lost even though it had, arguably, governed well. It reduced Italy's budget deficits, got Italy to qualify for the Euro currency, and pared back the state apparatus, at least a bit. Yet center-left voters interviewed on the streets of Rome didn't show any enthusiasm about their government's accomplishments; they said they had always voted for the left and would do so again.

Ignoring the critics. Italians chose Berlusconi even after an unprecedented barrage of criticism from the foreign press. The Economist in London, Le Monde in Paris, El Mundo in Spain all argued that Berlusconi's much-investigated business dealings made him unfit for office, and the mostly pro-center-left Italian press headlined the criticisms. The Belgian foreign minister said that Berlusconi was a threat to democracy. But most Italians evidently reacted like Fiat's Gianni Agnelli, who complained that foreigners were disparaging Italy as a "banana republic." Just as most Americans are not swayed by the condescending attitude of European commentators toward George W. Bush, so most Italians were not swayed by the chattering class's attacks on Berlusconi.

The Italian election provides support for the theory that center-left politics is an unstable chemical compound. When its elements bind together, it is very powerful. But it can suddenly become unstable. The center-left depends on combining the enthusiasm of a left that cannot summon a majority by itself with the approval of a center that is looking only for results. A committed left plus a convinced center can make up a governing majority. But an unenthusiastic left and a no-longer-convinced center leave the center-left a decided also-ran. This is the fear of Tony Blair's new Labor strategists in Britain, which votes June 7. They worry about low turnout among downscale old Labor voters. And they saw last September, when British drivers suddenly couldn't get petrol for their cars, how their lead in the polls over the mostly hapless Conservatives suddenly vanished. But Labor quickly came back, and in early May led Conservatives by about 50 percent to 32 percent in the polls; everyone believes that Blair will win. But no one is confident that his big lead will hold till election day.

And what of the center-left in the United States? Bill Clinton and Al Gore were as successful as Blair: as the candidates of the incumbent party in times of peace and prosperity, Clinton won 49 percent of the vote in 1996 and Gore 48 percent in 2000–enough to win once and (if a few Floridians had voted differently) twice, but not enough for a governing majority. Today's Democrats, vociferously opposing George W. Bush's tax cuts and judge appointments, Social Security commission and missile-defense plans, seem to assume that Gore's showing is a kind of floor for their party. But what if it's a ceiling? True, large numbers of voters for both parties are strongly committed, so the potential for movement is probably limited. But Democrats in 2002 and 2004 will not have the advantages of incumbency and the good times that Gore had, and their contentiousness is out of tune with the consensus-minded mood of American voters since the mid-1990s. Assembling a new center-left coalition may not be easy for Democrats in 2004, just as reassembling the Reagan coalition proved difficult for Bob Dole in 1996.

In the meantime, Berlusconi's victory has significance for American policy makers. European elites have been condescendingly criticizing George W. Bush's policies and his supposed unsophistication and abruptness. But Berlusconi ran and won as an unabashed pro-American. He will likely support Bush's missile-defense plans and see that the European Union's new Rapid Response Force does not replace the U.S.-led NATO (as Blair assured Bush it would not). Most in Europe also probably won't whine about the demise of the already dead Kyoto treaty. European elites may not like Bush all that much. But European voters sure like America.

Michael Baone Archives

JWR contributor Michael Barone is a columnist at U.S. News & World Report and the author of the biennialAlmanac of American Politics. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


©2001, Michael Barone