In the past few weeks, a number of elections in Europe have offered telling signs for American politics about the effect of the current pain on voters.
Two consistent patterns are emerging in virtually every European country where citizens have the opportunity to make their voices heard.
First, incumbent parties are being punished without regard to ideology. Whichever side is in power, the right or the left, it is being punished for failure.
Second, centrist parties everywhere are losing ground to anti-establishment parties.
These patterns are holding firm in France, Britain (local elections), Germany (one major local election), Greece, Spain and Italy.
Again and again voters are protesting bad economies with their votes. And they are increasingly rejecting policies of austerity and pain.
In significant numbers, they are also repudiating the establishment parties and moving to both right and left wing protest parties.
These rising protest parties indicate that more and more European voters are rejecting the performance, the ideas and the authority of the traditional establishment parties.
The results in France in particular offer some interesting suggestions for American politics—and it isn’t good news for President Obama.
First, the defeat of French President Nicolas Sarkozy very much follows the pattern of the 2006 and 2010 American elections. In both cases the opposition party (Democrats in 2006 and Republicans in 2010) were able to ride a wave repudiating the failed reform efforts of the incumbent party.
Sarkozy ran as a reformer in 2007. In fact, his book “Testimony: France in the 21st Century” was the best conservative statement in the last decade of the need for fundamental reform. His defense of the work ethic as essential to French prosperity was a clearer case than any American has offered since Ronald Reagan.
Unfortunately, Sarkozy was unable to deliver on his reforms. His personality overwhelmed his policies. The French economy’s failure overwhelmed his personality.
The French Socialist Hollande won in part by deemphasizing his personality and focusing on his desire to serve France rather than dominate it.
President Obama has every reason to be worried by European results. They offer solid proof that high unemployment, high gasoline prices, weak growth and big deficits can overwhelm his billion dollar campaign.
They also suggest that picking his NCAA bracket and flying off to Afghanistan may not count for much when voters look at their own pocketbooks.
For Gov. Mitt Romney, there is solid evidence in these results that his “it’s-the economy-and-we’re-not-stupid” message is the right focus for his campaign.
His recent call for the goal of 4 percent unemployment—a full employment economy—is exactly the right one.
The voters want a balanced budget through growth and opportunity and will reject austerity and pain. The governor and his team are working to build this positive contrast based on policy, not personality—much as Hollande did in France, though his politics could not be more different from Romney’s.
The European results also put the popularity of Ron Paul in a wider context. The support for his ideas and his anti-establishment campaign is not a uniquely American phenomenon. He is, in fact, challenging the establishment in exactly the same manner as the various protest parties of the right and left in Europe.
These election results suggest the tea party movement and the support focused on Ron Paul is not a small development. It betrays historic discontent, and I doubt we have seen the last of it.
If Gov. Romney succeeds in giving voice to that discontent in a serious discussion with the American people, he has a strong chance in the fall. Indeed, the European elections suggest President Obama faces a much steeper mountain to climb as the choice clarifies over the next few months.
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