Argument

What David Cameron Can Teach the GOP

What David Cameron Can Teach the GOP

When British Prime Minister David Cameron visits the United States this week, there will be the usual garlands of praise hung around the neck of the "special relationship" between the United States and the United Kingdom. We will hear, ad nauseam, that no two countries are closer and no two peoples (save perhaps the poor forgotten Canadians) have more in common. Like much political blather, there is some truth to this. The transatlantic cousins are, and will remain, close. There is too much history, too much culture, for it to be otherwise.

But with election season in full swing in the United States, one can’t help but notice the widening gulf between Cameron’s Conservative Party and its American counterparts on the right as the latter undergo a grueling primary. Despite periodic bouts of 1980s nostalgia on the campaign trail — Newt Gingrich has never met a problem a "Reagan-Thatcher" strategy can’t solve — memories of that era are fast fading. British Conservatives and American Republicans were genuinely close then; they are very much more distant today. So much so, in fact, that in many respects many British Tories are closer to the right wing of the Democratic Party than they are to the mainstream GOP.

Although the United States and Britain face many similar problems — a middle-class adrift, faltering social mobility, uncomfortably high unemployment, increased health-care costs, and a crisis of confidence in politics and political institutions — it is striking how few ideas Cameron’s government has borrowed from the American right. Tellingly, Sweden, not the United States, is the inspiration for the prime minister’s flagship school-reform program. Meanwhile, Cameron’s approach to budget-balancing includes cutting defense spending while his government’s enthusiasm for "green energy" is firmly within the European mainstream and a long way from the GOP’s "drill, baby, drill" approach. Indeed, Cameron has sharply increased taxes on oil companies.

Moderation was once a conservative — or at least a Tory — virtue. But from a British perspective, the Republicans appear to have abandoned the conservatism of Edmund Burke in favor of a repressed and vindictive scorched-earth brand of right-wing politics that owes little to any of conservatism’s more distinguished forefathers and rather more to the bile-strewn splutterings of ratings-chasing talk radio hosts (Rush Limbaugh’s recent troubles notwithstanding).

That is, doubtless, a feature of the fact that the present campaign for the Republican Party’s nomination appears dominated by cultural factors and a race to the bottom to see which candidate can portray President Barack Obama as some kind of fifth columnist actively seeking to undermine or, worse, destroy the United States. Seen from afar, this appears an unpersuasive review of the president’s time in office.

Moreover, again when viewed from the Atlantic’s eastern shore, the distemper afflicting the American conservative movement seems somewhat disproportionate. To put it another way: Mitt Romney’s Massachusetts health-care plan would, in outline anyway, be more than acceptable to the faction of Tories who are unpersuaded by the infallibility of government-run health care — considered well to the right on the British political spectrum. Or take taxing and spending: British conservatives want to reduce spending, but they’re prepared to raise some taxes to help pay for it. If they were American, these right-wing Tories would be apostates or RINOs — Republicans in name only.

This is a matter of temperament as much as policy. Although it was once possible to see trace elements of George W. Bush’s "compassionate conservatism" in Cameron’s vision of "The Big Society" — a plan to transfer control of services from government to local associations, including faith groups — the truth is that Cameron’s localism has its roots in British, not American, politics. (More to the point, it hasn’t achieved much yet.) In any case, Bush’s tarnished legacy continues to hurt the Republican brand outside the United States.

The incomprehension, mind you, is mutual. American conservatives might wonder whether they really have anything to learn from a party that, until the Great Crash of 2008, felt itself unable to oppose Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s runaway spending plans. Until reality dictated otherwise, Cameron and his closest aides paid little attention to fiscal policy. Like many others, they supposed the Age of Plenty would last forever.

Government today, however, on both sides of the Atlantic, is a matter of making do with less. For political, not economic, reasons, Cameron has chosen not to reduce the 50 percent income tax rate paid by the highest earners even though evidence suggests it is likely costing the Treasury money. Instead, he is slowly cutting corporate taxes and, more significantly, eliminating income taxes on low-paid workers altogether. Many within his own party would like to see a more aggressive, supply-side approach to boost growth.

Like leaders across the developed world, Cameron is still wrestling with the twin imperatives of controlling deficits while also boosting growth. Despite thousands of headlines to the contrary, the British government has not pressed ahead with "savage" austerity measures. Spending will remain constant in real terms, though higher debt-interest payments will squeeze departmental expenditures. Nevertheless, Cameron’s plans are only different in degree, not kind, to those proposed by the Labour government his coalition replaced.

Many American conservatives would, I am sure, consider the Oxford-educated Cameron a "squish" — and an aristocratic, silver-spooned squish at that. Nevertheless, Cameron’s rise to power does offer one valuable lesson for the Republicans: Change cannot be limited to removing the other party from power; it must involve changing your own party too.

Obama built a formidable electoral coalition in 2008, albeit in circumstances that were unusually favorable for a candidate of his type and quality. In 2012, as best it can be discerned from overseas, the Republican Party seems content to play on much the same demographic map as it did four years ago: unhealthily dependent on the votes of the super-rich and lower-income white men. These, particularly the latter, are of course important constituencies, but concentrating on them to the exclusion of almost all else is a risky strategy that leaves little margin for error.

If Cameron appreciated anything, it was that the core Conservative vote would not be enough to take him to Downing Street. He was, in some respects, the surprise winner of the 2005 Tory leadership election, defeating rivals possessing both purer conservative credentials and greater parliamentary experience. But, battered by three consecutive heavy defeats, the Tories grasped — dimly in some cases — that the party needed a new playbook. How could it be otherwise, when polling showed that popular policies became less popular when voters were told they were advocated by the Conservative Party?

Cameron offered a "detoxification" program designed to persuade voters that the Tories were no longer "the nasty party." Part of that meant talking about issues the Conservatives had traditionally neglected. At times this verged on self-parody, as when Cameron traveled to the Arctic for an elaborate photo shoot designed to show he "got" global warming. Cameron boasted that he would lead the "greenest government ever." Similarly, he emphasized his commitment to universal, state-funded health care, insisting that the National Health Service, another traditional Tory weakness, would be safe in Tory hands.

In office there has been some slippage on some of these policies (the faltering economy swamps all else), but there was a reason Cameron insisted on modernizing his party: It gave voters not usually open to Conservative messages room — even permission — to listen afresh to the Tories on matters traditionally considered Conservative strengths. Cameron was prepared to sacrifice a yard to gain two.

As Francis Maude, a former chairman of the Conservative Party and a key figure in the "modernization project," said in a speech this month: "The Conservative Party will always suffer if it’s seen to be almost trying to turn the clock back to an imagined golden era. You can’t drive policy looking through a rose-tinted rearview mirror. If we’re seen as being defined by backward-looking social attitudes, we will be seen as unacceptable and unelectable."

Perhaps the Republican Party has no need to make any kind of comparable gesture. But there is a sense, surely, that this primary season — choked with fools and charlatans and extremists as it has been — has tarnished the Republican brand to the point that it will soon need serious polishing.

Of course, the British and American systems are very different, and one should be cautious about suggesting that lessons from one are automatically applicable to the other. Nevertheless, I fancy that the American conservative movement’s hostility to same-sex marriage (and even birth control!) is severely damaging its standing with younger voters, especially those with college degrees. I suggest, too, that this damage hurts the Republican Party even with younger voters who might otherwise be sympathetic to conservative views. When the electorate moves, wise political parties think about moving too.

Something similar might be said of immigration and the Latino community. It’s not as if Obama and the Democrats have been able to "fix" immigration. But unlike the Republicans, they are able to talk about the issue in ways that don’t repel Hispanic voters. Here again, the British Conservatives have learned the power of framing. According to Maude, polling found that "voters confronted with the party’s immigration policy, if it were presented in a neutral way … supported it by two to one, but when told that it was a Conservative policy, the proportions reversed. This was all about the motives that were attached to us."

With recent polls showing slumping Hispanic support for the GOP, the Republican Party could use a detoxifying agent to attract a demographic that, as recently as 2004, was as much as 40 percent Republican.

In terms of right-of-center politics, the Atlantic Ocean has not been this wide since at least the 1930s. An old line has it that Britain and the United States are "two countries divided by a common language." Frankly, that has rarely been truer than when one contemplates the great conservative divide between the party of David Cameron and the party of Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, and Herman Cain. To shake their own "nasty party" problem, Republicans might consider looking across the ocean for inspiration.