Commentary Magazine


Topic: Big Society

What Lesson Will David Cameron Teach Americans?

The prospect of Florida Governor Charlie Crist pulling out of the Florida Republican Senate primary will, no doubt, send into a tizzy those who want the GOP to move to the center and away from the dreaded Tea Partiers and Sarah Palin. While this is more a matter of a flabby, pointless Crist campaign being knocked out of the box by a hugely popular and principled opponent in Marco Rubio than of a “moderate” being driven from the party by so-called extremists, there’s no question that this race is an indication of where the Republicans are headed.

While an independent candidacy by Crist might pose a challenge to Rubio in November, those who have advocated for Republican to move closer to the Democrats on health care and a host of other issues must come to grips with the fact that all the energy and emotion in Florida has come from those who want the GOP to challenge the Obama administration, not to copy it. The point is, when Republicans lose touch with their base and find themselves bogged down in the mushy middle, they tend to lose and lose badly.

Florida’s politics couldn’t be much more different from those of Britain, but the way the general election in that country is going has to give pause to those who believe that a nonideological candidate and party of the Right is the only way to fight the Left. Conservative Party leader David Cameron thought he was coasting to inevitable victory after 13 years of Labor government. But Cameron, a telegenic upper-class swell, believed that Tories who were actually conservatives couldn’t possibly win. So he recast his party to be advocates of global-warming alarmism, criticized the closeness of the Labor government to that of George W. Bush (Obama’s disdain for Brits of any political persuasion has taken the juice out of this issue), and proposed an approach to domestic issues based on a communitarian idea of a “Big Society,” which sounds suspiciously similar to Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” liberal boondoggles of the 1960s.

Yet far from greasing the skids to victory, trying to be liberal has actually derailed his campaign. A third party, the Liberal Democrats, is further to the Left than Labor on many issues and has in Nick Clegg, a far more focused leader than either Prime Minister Gordon Brown of Labor or the good-looking but feckless Cameron. Cameron thought that fudging the differences with Labor would make it easier for him to win. But, instead, it has given Clegg and the Lib Dems an opening to be the party of change in Britain. Thus, rather than a Tory cakewalk, the May 6 election looks increasingly like a dead heat that could leave Labor in power by itself or even in coalition with the Liberal Democrats.

It could be that by discarding genuine Conservative ideology (this is the party of Margaret Thatcher, after all), Cameron may be pulling defeat from the jaws of victory. It may be too late for Cameron to tack to the Right and give voters a reason to vote for his party. As it is, a watered-down Conservative Party is rightly seen as no different from the incumbent Laborites to an electorate desperate for a real alternative.

Last November, David Frum wrote in COMMENTARY that Cameron’s tactics provided a good lesson for American conservatives as they sought to rebuild from their 2008 defeat. He believed that by tacking to the Left, Cameron had aligned his priorities with those of the country and had essentially volunteered to do what political necessity would have forced him to do anyway. As Frum put it, “the leader you want is someone who appeals to the voters you need to gain, not the voters you already have.” Since “educated and professional voters, once the backbone of the Republican party,” had swung away from conservatism, Frum believed that Republicans must follow them as Cameron had done.

David Cameron’s fate is not yet decided. And we are months away from the proof of whether a candidate like Marco Rubio will lead Republicans to victory in a key state like Florida. But if in abandoning conservative principles Cameron has set the Tories up for a colossal reversal of fortune, it may be that the lesson the handsome Brit will teach his American brethren is how to lose an election that was considered in his pocket — not how to win one.

The prospect of Florida Governor Charlie Crist pulling out of the Florida Republican Senate primary will, no doubt, send into a tizzy those who want the GOP to move to the center and away from the dreaded Tea Partiers and Sarah Palin. While this is more a matter of a flabby, pointless Crist campaign being knocked out of the box by a hugely popular and principled opponent in Marco Rubio than of a “moderate” being driven from the party by so-called extremists, there’s no question that this race is an indication of where the Republicans are headed.

While an independent candidacy by Crist might pose a challenge to Rubio in November, those who have advocated for Republican to move closer to the Democrats on health care and a host of other issues must come to grips with the fact that all the energy and emotion in Florida has come from those who want the GOP to challenge the Obama administration, not to copy it. The point is, when Republicans lose touch with their base and find themselves bogged down in the mushy middle, they tend to lose and lose badly.

Florida’s politics couldn’t be much more different from those of Britain, but the way the general election in that country is going has to give pause to those who believe that a nonideological candidate and party of the Right is the only way to fight the Left. Conservative Party leader David Cameron thought he was coasting to inevitable victory after 13 years of Labor government. But Cameron, a telegenic upper-class swell, believed that Tories who were actually conservatives couldn’t possibly win. So he recast his party to be advocates of global-warming alarmism, criticized the closeness of the Labor government to that of George W. Bush (Obama’s disdain for Brits of any political persuasion has taken the juice out of this issue), and proposed an approach to domestic issues based on a communitarian idea of a “Big Society,” which sounds suspiciously similar to Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” liberal boondoggles of the 1960s.

Yet far from greasing the skids to victory, trying to be liberal has actually derailed his campaign. A third party, the Liberal Democrats, is further to the Left than Labor on many issues and has in Nick Clegg, a far more focused leader than either Prime Minister Gordon Brown of Labor or the good-looking but feckless Cameron. Cameron thought that fudging the differences with Labor would make it easier for him to win. But, instead, it has given Clegg and the Lib Dems an opening to be the party of change in Britain. Thus, rather than a Tory cakewalk, the May 6 election looks increasingly like a dead heat that could leave Labor in power by itself or even in coalition with the Liberal Democrats.

It could be that by discarding genuine Conservative ideology (this is the party of Margaret Thatcher, after all), Cameron may be pulling defeat from the jaws of victory. It may be too late for Cameron to tack to the Right and give voters a reason to vote for his party. As it is, a watered-down Conservative Party is rightly seen as no different from the incumbent Laborites to an electorate desperate for a real alternative.

Last November, David Frum wrote in COMMENTARY that Cameron’s tactics provided a good lesson for American conservatives as they sought to rebuild from their 2008 defeat. He believed that by tacking to the Left, Cameron had aligned his priorities with those of the country and had essentially volunteered to do what political necessity would have forced him to do anyway. As Frum put it, “the leader you want is someone who appeals to the voters you need to gain, not the voters you already have.” Since “educated and professional voters, once the backbone of the Republican party,” had swung away from conservatism, Frum believed that Republicans must follow them as Cameron had done.

David Cameron’s fate is not yet decided. And we are months away from the proof of whether a candidate like Marco Rubio will lead Republicans to victory in a key state like Florida. But if in abandoning conservative principles Cameron has set the Tories up for a colossal reversal of fortune, it may be that the lesson the handsome Brit will teach his American brethren is how to lose an election that was considered in his pocket — not how to win one.

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