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So-Called Liberal Ideas in U.S. Are Conservative by European Standards

A spectre is apparently haunting America - the spectre of "populism". "New populism spurs Democrats on the economy," cried the front page headline in The New York Times the other day. Republicans rail against unseemly "class warfare", while centrist Democrats fret that hard-edged populist appeals will spook suburban voters.

"It is not unusual," The New York Times explained, "for candidates seeking the Democratic presidential nomination to move left in the primary season." However, rhetoric aside, there is little reason to view today's supposedly wild-eyed Democrats as "populist" or "left-wing" at all.

Consider John Edwards, who the press and Republicans have cast as the heartthrob of the resurgent "left". The centrepiece of Mr Edwards' agenda is universal health coverage. It sounds radical to American ears, perhaps. But Margaret Thatcher would have been chased from office in the UK if she had proposed a health plan as radically conservative as Mr Edwards' - under which private doctors would supply the medicine, and years would still pass with millions of Americans uncovered.

Mr Edwards wants to lift the minimum wage substantially, and to boost wage subsidies for low-income work besides. But the outer limits of his ambition would leave low income work less generously compensated than the minimum wage and subsidy blend enacted by Britain's New Labourites Tony Blair and Gordon Brown - arrangements Conservative party leader David Cameron says suit him just fine.

On taxes, Mr Edwards wants to return marginal rates for high earners from 35 per cent to the 39.6 per cent level that existed under Bill Clinton - rates slightly lower than those in force after Mrs Thatcher got through cutting them. Mr Edwards jawbones against outsized CEO pay that is divorced from performance - a concern that arch-capitalist Warren Buffet trumpets at every opportunity. Mr Edwards' plans for college aid would still leave American graduates far deeper in debt than anything conservative parties across Europe would tolerate.

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