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U.S. Politicians Eye Europe Warily As Austerity Fatigue Ousts Governments

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Ned Simons reported from London, Alexandre Phalippou from Paris, and Ryan Grim from Washington.

When Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke ventured to the Senate last Thursday for a closed-door gathering, he found a nervous Democratic caucus. One senator put their anxiety into words: How worried should we be about Europe?

The question wasn't merely about the drag on U.S. gross domestic product that a downturn on the continent could have. More importantly, Democrats were worried about the anti-incumbent anger in the European electorate, said one senator who was in the meeting.

Bernanke demurred, declining to get into the politics, but other senators in the room answered the question: Voters, they warned, will punish incumbents for the pain of austerity.

"Incumbency plus austerity equals political death," MP Jon Trickett, a top official with Ed Miliband's Labour Party, told HuffPost. "There is a general spirit across Europe, and perhaps in the U.S., against the political elite."

The weekend after the meeting, that equation played out as predicted, smashing Chancellor Angela Merkel's ruling party in a state election described as a devastating setback by German media.

One of the most powerful messages that U.S. politicians have delivered to voters over the past few years is the warning that the nation will "become Greece" if it doesn't lower its debt and deficit. But now voters in Greece and across Europe are sending back a warning of their own.

American elites are fond of describing the nation they represent as exceptional. But the language of reelection is universal -- and bipartisan.

"Off with their heads," said Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) when asked about the message European voters were sending.

Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) both said the European elections are a frequent topic of conversation among senators. "Every bill up here is a 'jobs' bill. It's your job," said Graham. "I guess the question is, how much do you want the job?"

Sunday's rebuke to Merkel in North Rhine-Westphalia, home to some 18 million Germans, came a week after French voters tossed out President Nicolas Sarkozy and elected socialist François Hollande, a symbol of the anti-austerity movement. And that followed electoral rebukes to the ruling coalitions in Spain, Greece, Holland, Britain and Italy.

Trickett, who was previously a parliamentary aide to then-Prime Minister Gordon Brown, said that although elections are "complex," he was sure the government's handling of the economy was a major factor in recent losses.

"There is no doubt that at the front of people's minds was that the austerity measures are not working. That does explain the election result," he said.

In the United Kingdom, where voters tend to behave most similarly to those in the United States, the governing Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition that took power in 2010 has defined itself by its mission to cut the budget deficit by imposing spending cuts across public services. Despite falling living standards and rising unemployment, the Conservative Party had largely managed to sustain the near 37 percent approval rating it secured at the time of the general election -- high by British standards because of the parliamentary system.

However, following the party's 2012 budget, which included a headline-grabbing tax cut for the wealthiest Britons, and news that the UK had slipped back into recession, its poll rating plummeted below 30 percent for the first time since 2004. This slip in support was reflected in local council elections in May, when both the Conservatives and the Lib Dems suffered heavy losses.

Overall, the Conservatives lost 405 council seats while the Lib Dems lost 336. By contrast, the Labour Party gained 823 councillors. Labour secured a 38 percent national share of the vote, while the Tories received just 31 percent.

Labour MP Trickett's advice for Obama and the Democrats? Even though he is the one in office, the president must "capture the spirit of insurgency against austerity" in his fight against Mitt Romney.

Unfortunately for American incumbents, the French, British and Spanish elections tell different stories with identical outcomes. Spanish leader José Luis Zapatero was thrown out because he tried to underestimate the impact of the crisis and austerity. He lost credibility and lost power.

In France, Sarkozy took the opposite tack. He and Prime Minister François Fillon repeatedly warned that the country was living through the worst economic crisis since 1929, hoping that if people were convinced of that, they would more readily sacrifice.

It turns out that when government policy makes people's lives noticeably worse, they vote out the policymakers, no matter what the rationale.

Graham, the South Carolina Republican, said that American politicians should learn from the Europeans and make sure that both parties are on board for spending cuts. That gives voters nowhere to flee.

"We're going to need a Ronald Reagan-Tip O'Neill moment, because what you see in Europe is a breaking apart of consensus. The centrist parties took a beating, and now everybody's running for the hills," he said. "Here's what Ronald Reagan and Tip O'Neill did: They held hands, and they did it together."

In the 1980s, President Reagan and House Speaker O'Neill famously cut a grand bargain with a mix of entitlement reform and tax increases.

"What you see happening in Europe is really going to happen in December [in the U.S.], because in December all of these things come together," Graham said, referring to the expiration of the Bush tax cuts and payroll tax cut, the approach of the debt limit, and the kicking in of automatic cuts mandated by the previous budget deal, which will all coincide with the new year. "If in December, we run for the hills as a nation, what's going on in Europe is coming to our doorstep."

But politicians are fooling themselves if they think some sort of centrist consensus will save their jobs, said Rep. Brad Miller (D-N.C.). "European elections should remind politicians here not to worry about the approval of pampered, pompous Washington pundits who think the middle class just has it too good," Miller said. "Washington pundits love austerity, and they're all clucking with disapproval for European voters. The pundits always think someone else's belt needs tightening, and it's always someone who doesn't go to the same cocktail parties they go to. But there are a lot more middle-class voters than there are Washington pundits."

Pat McFadden, a Labour MP who was a close aide to Prime Minister Tony Blair and served as a business minister under Peter Mandelson during the Brown administration, said voters' reaction to the austerity arises not just from the pain, but from the unfairness of it.

The British elections "were also a statement that people think cuts [are] being implemented unfairly," said McFadden. "Taxes are being cut for people earning over £150,000 while low-income families are having their incomes cut, VAT has been increased and people are struggling to make ends meet."

That type of pain shouldn't be delivered during already rough economic times, McFadden argued. "American politicians will make their own decisions, but the big task for politicians in countries with deficits is to bring the deficits down over the medium term but without damaging jobs, growth and confidence," he said. "If government simply slashes spending all over the place, it can become self-defeating because growth stalls, unemployment rises and ultimately borrowing goes up, not down."

Calling Europe "a controlled experiment" for austerity policies, Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) said, "It's a disaster, and we should learn from it."

Sen. Graham, for his part, acknowledged the need for economic growth. "At the end of the day, austerity and growth have to go together," he said. "But this rebellion, or pushback, against making hard choices in Europe, if it does come to our shores, we're in trouble."

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