In Europe today, it’s springtime for the center-right, who this week marked some of the widest electoral victories in history. To see the real breadth of the amount of change toward the free market right, this results map from the Financial Times is particularly astonishing, and the Guardian has the United Kingdom’s version of the same.
The impression these maps create is not so much a sign of a coherent act of political expression as it is one continent, sickened by years of economic socialism, vomiting the entirety of the ruling class (with the exceptions of already right-of-center France and Germany) into the Atlantic. And that’s why, as the coming changeover in the UK is the political shift gains the American right’s attention, one should retain a healthy amount of skepticism about conservatives on this side of the pond emulating the European center-right’s paths to success.
Peter Roff, writing over at US News’ Thomas Jefferson Street blog, has already made the case for American conservatives taking cues from the success of Tory leader David Cameron, who stands to reap the benefits of the extraordinary failure of Prime Minister Gordon Brown. The normally insightful Roff is not alone in making this rather obvious suggestion. But Americans who are making this argument either aren’t talking to solid center-right Britons, or view Cameron’s success as an opportunity to advancement the same opinions they’ve been hitting on for the past several years — that the Republican Party should become a coalition of the muddled middle, rejecting smaller government libertarians, strong and assertive national security, and faith and family social conservatives. Yes, that’s it — that’s the ticket to success.
Slate’s Jacob Weisberg, never particularly good at hiding what he’s really thinking when talking to Republicans, is the most blatant about this. He calls for American conservatives to give the stubborn Dick Cheney the boot (I guess those poll numbers putting Cheney ahead of Speaker Pelosi aren’t worth anything) and emulate Cameron entirely — or rather, what Weisberg thinks is emulating Cameron:
In political terms, it’s easier to see what a viable Republican Party should ditch than what it should add. It’s past time for the GOP to abandon its Gingrich-era, pseudo-libertarian anti-government rhetoric and to accept the broad social consensus behind progressive taxation, retirement security, action to forestall climate change, and a government role in health care. It might want to quit defending torture. It needs to move to a neutral or big-tent approach on major social issues—gay marriage, abortion, and stem cells—the way Democrats have done with gun control and the death penalty. A Sister Souljah moment would help. Some respected party leader needs to give a swift, symbolic kick to a fringe figure who epitomizes the intolerance of the religious right—perhaps Jerry Falwell Jr., whose “Liberty” University recently rusticated its beyond-the-pale campus Democratic Club.
All right — now that they’ve offended both the small government libertarians and the faithful social conservatives and shrunk their tent considerably, presumably Republicans will ride a wave of good feelings to electoral success thanks to voters like Jacob Weisberg. This is, of course, absurd — Jacob Weisberg would never consider punching a chad for the bastards. To repeat what numerous voices have already pointed out: John McCain was the most moderate national candidate on marriage, abortion, global warming, and stem cells the GOP has run in the post-Roe era, and it didn’t make any significant difference in the result.
Yet what all of these varied suggestions (from more legitimate sources) betray at some point is an admission that Cameron hasn’t actually pushed for anything resembling a coherent agenda or the remaking of the Tory party in policy terms. He’s about rebranding, not reenvisioning — and Cameron’s current pending success isn’t because of ideological consistency, a reputation for cleaning up messes, or even offering common sense answers to the burgeoning issues of the day. It’s because his political enemies are committing a particularly gruesome form of public hari kari.
This is a fantastic path to political success, but it’s not one that can really be adapted. Despite a few attempts to advance his toughness, the word most used among British conservatives for Cameron is still “wet.” He’s viewed as a weak figure, one preternaturally vulnerable to the negative opinions of others. Canvassing a group of center-right thinkers in Britain today, one finds an astonishing lack of insight into what Cameron will actually do once the reins of power are transferred in the way of real reform. He’s given lip-service to a lot of ideas, of decentralization and more local control — but few on the center-right view Cameron as a strong voice of leadership on any of the economic issues motivating voters today.
Think forward for a moment, and it’s easy to see the American right following suit, and just waiting for the left to self-destruct. Assume Obama’s domestic and economic policies are no more successful than they appear to be at the moment — that things are only a bit improved, and in some areas worse, than they are at the moment. Projecting current trends out five or six years, to Obama’s second midterm election, it would make sense for the public (already showing signs of tiring of said policies, if not the man himself) to take out their frustration on Pelosi and Harry Reid (if he’s still around) and kick the Congressional Democrats to the curb. This is a Congressional majority that won based on the idea that it could run things better than the asleep-at-the-wheel GOP, and a President who won after promising to go line-by-line through the budget to cut wasteful spending (not to mention promising the American people in two debates to deliver a net spending cut — it’s okay to laugh). And in place of Britain’s vaunted expense scandal, Democrats have to deal with current scandals around John Murtha and others which, as the WSJ’s Kim Strassel puts it, “could make Abramoff look like a piker.”
Given all this, you can certainly see the potential for American voters following the UK’s lead a few years down the road, cycling back toward free market, anti-tax Republicans. Yet none of that expression of disgust with the solutions and leadership of the American left would require the Republicans as a party or conservatives as a movement to grow up or reform their ways. They’d just be standing around for the next few years, becoming the Party of “No,” attempting some small repositioning of brand, and waiting for their opponents to fail — just as Cameron has. This displays all the courage and leadership of a hunter in the woods who, nervous about accomplishing the task at hand, decides to just wait for his intended kill to die of old age or boredom.
So yes, American conservatives can learn from David Cameron and their Tory brethren: they can learn by not following his lead. They shouldn’t just wait for their opponents to make a god-awful mess of things, holding out hope for the evil of two lessers. Instead, the American center-right should spend the next few years focused on new applications and solutions for the country, so that if they once again regain a majority in Washington, they’ll actually know what to do with it.