The Carville and Stephanopoulos analysis was that the Democrats had recently been far too weak and ill-disciplined to win. If they wanted to beat the conservative machine and the power of the media they would have to run a different kind of campaign. Out would go what they thought of as self-indulgence and in would come all-controlling "message-discipline", rapid rebuttal, constant use of focus groups and polling, relentless incantation of an opponent's weaknesses and concentration on the concerns of middle-ground voters. The now over-used phrase "it's the economy stupid", to remind Clinton's staffers of its potency as a weapon against George Bush, was Carville's mantra. Despite their candidate's notable weaknesses, in the shape of his famous "bimbo eruptions", it worked.
There was marketing, bullying and chicanery long before The War Room, but the Clinton campaign refracted and glamorised those activities to such an extent that they became standard electoral technique. What British political professionals often call the "Blair playbook" is actually the Clinton manual, written by Carville and Stephanopoulos. A hungry New Labour learnt the script from the Clinton campaign and the Cameroons, who so admired Tony Blair, were keen to follow his lead. The problem with chasing fickle fashion is that it is easy to go out of style.
According to the Blair blueprint, a good-looking young leader and a "time for a change" mantra would deliver Tory victory in 2010. But it didn't. What went wrong? Without realising it the Cameroon Conservatives were using a script that was already going out of date. In the crisis of 2008 finance and the banks went bankrupt. Now it is politics — or the post-1992 approach — that has gone bust.
This is not just a Conservative problem. All the large mainstream British parties are in trouble and do not know how to respond to deep unpopularity, public resentment and the erosion of traditional boundaries. The Conservative response seems to consist mainly of pointing out that Labour leader Ed Miliband and Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg are more unpopular than David Cameron.
This seems to be more than just a blip. Those in the Westminster village who say that the British have long mistrusted their leaders are underestimating the scale of alienation and potential for further fragmentation in a system that is so widely mistrusted. Turnout at the last general election was only 65.1 per cent; until 2001, turnouts were above 70 per cent. Britons have long moaned that voting changes nothing, but a greater number believe it true enough to not bother taking part than did even 20 years ago.
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