Alex Massie slaps Jonah Goldberg around for this item extolling the “Churchillian” courage of the House GOP. Massie refrains from mocking the “apparently compulsory Churchill reference,” but I cannot. There really ought to be a rule for Americans, especially when they’re writing from Britain, that they cannot compare their own politicians to Churchill under any circumstances unless that comparison touches on a politician’s wartime decision-making, drinking or party-switching. It would be a corollary to Godwin’s Law such that the first person to invoke Churchill for rhetorical purposes automatically loses the argument. Presumably, the House GOP’s vote against the stimulus is supposedly “Churchillian” because it demonstrates some steely-eyed refusal to surrender (unlike, one assumes, the Chamberlain-like capitulation of others). If the House GOP plays Churchill in this story, someone must be Chamberlain and therefore weak and spineless and so forth–that is inevitably how these comparisons work on the American right. David Cameron and the Tories are made to serve the latter role:
For instance, Tory party leader David Cameron has a circus-act flexibility when it comes to ideological principles. No adjective is too constraining for his brand of shmoo-like conservatism; “Green,” “compassionate,” “progressive,” “radical,” even “libertarian paternalism,” his conservatism can fit into them all, for his philosophical invertebracy is boundless. Meanwhile, Boris Johnson, the mop-topped conservative mayor of London and former editor of the indispensable conservative journal The Spectator, seems to see conservatism as a mere facet to his own charming eccentricity. Both men have a politician’s love of popularity, rather than an ideologue’s love of principle, so both are scrambling like teenagers who’ve spotted Paris Hilton at the mall to ingratiate themselves with Barack Obama, the ex officio president of the United Kingdom.
I could go on for a while about Goldberg’s genuinely absurd contradictions-in-terms “ideological principles” and “an ideologue’s love of principle,” but there is only so much time in the day. Suffice it to say that principles and ideology are not the same, and conservatives should eschew the latter, so if the complaint is really that Cameron is not an ideologue then so much the better for his reputation as a conservative. Many times I have criticized the Cameroons for adopting what seems in many respects to be watered-down New Labour policies, but I think it gets things quite wrong to think of Cameron as simply a popularity-seeker. Massie covers some of the following points, but I want to elaborate on them a bit more.
Cameron and the Cameroons are adopting arguably more “moderate” policies because they come from the modernizing wing of the party where people adhere to such policies because they find them superior, and they have come to prevail in intra-party squabbles at a time when such policies seem to be attractive to a large part of the electorate. More crucially, as a matter of electoral politics, the Tories are no longer automatically loathed by quite so many people, and some part of this is the result of Cameron’s attempts to reorient the party. There is an important difference between being a shameless popularity-seeker and reveling in one’s marginal status, and for a time the Tories seemed to be heading in the second direction. Cameron has undoubtedly also benefited from Brown’s tremendous unpopularity and failure, both of which worsened significantly over the last year, just as Obama benefited from Bush’s, but the modernizing trajectory he is setting for the Tories is one that the left of the Conservative Party has been pushing for at least since 1997. The label modernizer can give a biased impression in favor of the Cameroons, but this is what their faction has been called on a regular basis for years.
Between New Labour’s implosion and Cameron’s make-over of the party, the Tories have been making huge gains in local elections and notably won the Crewe and Nantwich by-election by picking up support among working-class voters who had been lost to the Tories for decades. Granted, Cameron has not yet won a national election, but one reason for this is that Cameron has so successfully revived the Tories that Brown was frightened away from calling an election in ’07. As things stand now, Cameron may be on the verge of orchestrating the Tories’ comeback after 12 years in the wilderness–clearly, there is nothing that Republicans could learn from this example!
There are many reasons why the kind of changes Cameron has introduced on policy and image may not work as well in the U.S. for Republicans. There are reasonable arguments to be made that center-right parties ought not always copy one another’s positions. Indeed, if Goldberg’s complaint is with “compassionate conservatism” it might be worth noting that the Tories started adopting Bush-like rhetoric about “compassionate conservatism” many years ago under Hague’s leadership. They also adopted a hawkish foreign policy modeled on that of Mr. Bush, making them a completely ineffective opposition against Blair’s backing of the war in Iraq and his egregious violations of civil liberties, while persisting in a kind of monomania about Europe that never resonated with a broad section of the electorate. A combination of a lack of credibility, lack of an imaginative and relevant agenda, poor leadership, terrible public relations and backing an overwhelmingly unpopular war ensured that the Tories gained no traction despite increasing discontent with Blair’s government.
Indeed, one can exaggerate the differences in substance between Cameron and his predecessors, and one can place too much emphasis on policy change as the chief means to electoral revival. The interests of the parties’ constituencies may not necessarily be aligned, so different center-right parties will have to fashion their policies accordingly and may end up heading in significantly different directions. Symbolism, image and presentation count for quite a lot, as does the ability to acknowledge past failures, and it is in all of these areas that the Cameroons probably have the most to teach the GOP. Above all, the willingness to adapt is something that the Cameroons have brought to the Tories and have made them seem as if they are a credible governing party again. Cameron has done this not so much because he talked about “hugging a hoodie” or because he enthused about his love of bicycling, but because he demonstrated that Tories were capable of speaking to the British public about things that mattered to many more of them than they had done in the recent past. In any case, to appropriate language and terminology normally associated with the other side in a political debate is not necessarily to sign off on the policy solutions one’s opponents propose. There is nothing contradictory or necessarily supportive of extensive state regulation in conservatives’ describing themselves as “green.” Decentralization has become one of Cameron’s better themes, which can be entirely consistent with “green” policies, and “green” ends can be pursued in very different ways. The delight that some significant part of the GOP and conservative movement takes in denying or belittling green issues is part of the reason why the rising generation finds them intolerable.
For the most part, Republicans continue to retreat ever deeper into fantasy, imagining that they lost power because of “spending like drunken sailors,” to use an old McCainism, identifying earmarks as one of the great causes of our time and answering every question with a tax cut proposal. That is why there is little reassuring or gratifying about their vote on the stimulus bill, because it is just the sort of thing you would expect them to do if they had learned nothing from the last two elections. Hague and Duncan-Smith were arguably right on Europe, asylum-seekers and crime as a matter of policy, but politically they were clueless and ensured not only their continued opposition status but also the eventual marginalization of the issues they did consider important. These other issues were eventually marginalized even within their own party because they could not talk credibly about anything else. Not only do Republicans evade all responsibility for their contributions to the current financial crisis, an evasion that the mainstream conservative movement is largely happy to enable (“Greenspan? Who’s Greenspan?”), but also seem to have lost all connection to the parts of the country outside their core states. They are reduced to the districts where someone like Sarah Palin is taken seriously as a future national leader, and instead of pondering why the rest of the country finds them ridiculous they simply redouble their commitment to all of the things that make them seem ridiculous. In other words, there is no interest in and possibly little understanding of how they appear to the rest of the country. The Tories were in pretty miserable shape after 1997, but I’m not sure that even they were as bereft of vision and ideas.
One last point about the stimulus. I think it is the case that the current stimulus bill passed by the House is not very good, and I can see the merit of additional tax cuts as a faster and more effective way of providing economic stimulus, but the political failure of the GOP more broadly is that this (and hostility to earmarks) was and is their answer to almost everything on domestic policy. The greatest problem with the GOP leadership is that I suspect they think they have corrected the one flaw that they assume was responsible for their past defeats, and now that they are opposing “wasteful spending and earmarks” they will make no effort to rethink anything else.