It's hard to escape U.S. politics -- even a continent away. For the past few weeks, I was in Europe, spending most of my time in two small villages in Tuscany. No e-mail, no Internet, no CNN (or any other television), limited access to English-language newspapers. The (new) missus and I drove the hilly, narrow and curvaceous backroads (with Italian drivers, near-miss is a way of life), explored medieval towns, roamed through Etruscan ruins, sampled wine, bathed in thermal waters, gazed at ancient church frescoes (lurid and graphically violent in their depiction of the battle between good and evil, they were the comic books of their day) and ate and ate: the usual.And still. In an Italian cafe, I spotted a discarded newspaper containing an item that reported on Hillary Clinton's purchase in Italy of thousands of dollars of shoes and that crowned her the American Imelda. When I was stuck in a bank in a small town and told, after nearly an hour of waiting, that I could not change money because of a problem with a computer using Microsoft Windows, it was hard not to hope that the Justice Dept. officials combating Bill Gates were making progress. And when I passed Italian newsstands, I noticed that they offered R-rated movie videos for sale, with Natural Born Killers and Goodfellas apparently the two most popular choices. I couldn't help but wonder what House Majority Whip Tom DeLay would say about that. After House GOPers in mid-June blasted apart the modest gun-control legislation, arguing that entertainment fare was more deadly than weapons, DeLay huffed that the issue was "God, not guns." Well, throughout Italy there are crucifixes in public buildings, and it doesn't seem to have helped a great deal. The country is still beset with much corruption and plagued by a little outfit called the Mafia.On the corruption front, the Italian tolerance for wheeling-dealing was evident at the Palio in Siena. Twice a summer, thousands flock to the town to witness this wild bareback horse race. On a dirt track laid down on the perimeter of the piazza in the town's center, 10 jockeys -- often Italian cowboys from the Maremma region -- ride horses representing the town's various contrade, or neighborhoods. The rules are few in this 700-year-old event. Jockeys can whip each other's horses, and each other. And right before the race -- after a parade of bands, drummers and flag-twirlers -- there's an official period of bribery. While on their horses, the jockeys, using money raised by the neighborhoods for which they ride, cut deals with each other as the crowd watches. One rider might be bribing another to block a third rider. A jockey might be accepting money to pull back at a propitious moment. When two jockeys from rival neighborhoods began to confer, the crowd hissed and booed. As a security guard explained this procedure to us, a Dutch friend of ours asked if such bribery was officially prohibited. "Of course not," the man said with a laugh, "this is Siena."Once all the skullduggery was completed, the horses took their place and the starter's gun was fired. After the 90 seconds of madness was over, during which two riders fell off their horses and the winning jockey, curiously, spent the last of the three laps holding his horse back, we spotted our friendly security official in tears. His horse had not won. Other Sienese from losing neighborhoods were also crying. Even though the natives knew the race can be fixed, they still were bitterly disappointed when their horses lost.Seems like there is a metaphor for Italian politics somewhere in there, but I'll leave it to others more familiar with the many governments of Italy to tease it out. What I gathered from my limited study of Italian politics is that the Clintonism that has crawled across Europe is not doing so well. In recent weeks, Bill Clinton's European colleagues in liberalish-centrism have taken major hits. During the elections for the European Parliament in mid-June, Prime Minister Tony Blair's Labor Party in England and Chancellor Gerhard Schroder's Social Democratic Party in Germany suffered embarrassing results. And then, two weeks later, Prime Minister Massimo D'Alema's Democratic Left in Italy lost key regional elections. The 1994 U.S. elections -- when Clinton was knocked on his backside by an electorate that handed control of Congress to Newt Gingrich and the Republicans in a low-turnout contest -- have in a sense been repeated in Europe. In England, voter participation was meager, and Blair failed to mobilize Labor supporters, as Clinton failed with Democrats in 1994. Blair's move to reshape the Labor Party -- inspired by the "New Democrat" strategy of Clinton -- has pissed off the party's traditional supporters and failed to capture the loyalty of others.In Italy, where the Democratic Left lost control of Bologna, a left stronghold for half a century, D'Alema paid for his Clinton-like behavior. Days before the elections, his government raised the prospect of pension cuts, which angered older voters and union members. The Democratic Left has "moved toward the center, but didn't pick up any new voters there," Renato Mannheimer, an Italian pollster, said. "Meanwhile, by abandoning a more identifiable left-wing approach, they alienated their traditional base." Clinton, of course, would never do anything as stupid as hint at Social Security cuts before an election. But in his first years in the White House, he did deliberately pursue policies that discouraged his party's base (NAFTA, for instance), and he paid for it in 1994.For the past year, Clintonites have been talking up Clinton's leadership of a worldwide "Third Way" movement of government, in an attempt to refurbish their man's image. (Other Project Legacy efforts have not done the trick. Clinton's race initiative has gone nowhere, so much so that the ghostwriter of Clinton's book on race, Harvard professor Christopher Edley, has abandoned the project. And Clinton's recent hey-let's-discover-poverty tour was scheduled too late in his two-term administration to do much good.) European politics is crucial to Clinton's position as Third Way guru, for Blair and Schroder are his prime allies on this front. Last month the two issued a Clintonesque declaration to Europe's Social Democrats, calling for reductions in public expenditures, lower taxes and reforms in the welfare state. In the European Parliament elections they were trounced, while the French Socialists, who scoffed at the Blair-Schroder missive, managed to beat back a strong challenge from the right.From England to Germany to Italy, Clintonish politics are not working. Politicians abroad who marvel at Clinton's success and survival and who wish to emulate his professional behavior ought to take a good look at their role model. Clinton has a manner of succeeding while his comrades fall.

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