What Can Republicans Learn From The Tory Victory In Great Britain?
Republicans could learn a few things from the Tory victory in the recent British elections, but they are in danger of drawing the wrong conclusions.
Fresh off his successful effort helping David Cameron and the Conservative Party win an historic election in the United Kingdom, and beating his friend David Axelrod in the process, former Obama campaign manager Jim Messina has some observations about why the Tories won and what it might mean for 2016 in the United States:
In the United Kingdom’s general election, Prime Minister Cameron won on a vision of a dynamic, competitive Britain as a land of future opportunity for working families. Miliband was promising them only a return to the past: 1970s-style rent control, re-nationalization of some services, and energy price controls were, bizarrely, the main policy initiatives highlighted by Labour.
The same thing will be true of future presidential contests in the United States. There are huge political differences between the UK and U.S., but there are some important common lessons. Especially when you’ve been losing in recent elections, you’ve got to be able to redefine and rebrand your party for the future. Tony Blair did that for Labour in the UK. Ronald Reagan did it for the Republicans in 1980. Bill Clinton did it for us in 1992. So far, during the 2016 cycle, Republican presidential candidates seem dedicated to defending old policies across the spectrum from going back to pre-crisis rules for Wall Street to attacking the science of climate change to constantly focusing on restricting women’s health care decisions.
If the message the GOP takes away from Cameron’s win is mainly about the renewed power of right, they will fail in 2016, I believe. The truth is that British politics is skewed much further left than ours. Cameron personally led the fight to legalize gay marriage, made addressing climate change a top priority, and defended generous British humanitarian aid worldwide even as he was attacked for it. During the campaign, his manifesto called for a dramatic expansion of child care for working families, new apprenticeships for young people and eliminating taxes on workers at the minimum wage. Much of his agenda aligns very well with the modern Democratic Party platform.
The message of that election for us in the United States is less that Hillary Clinton needs to stay in the center than it is that Republicans need to move beyond their base. One reason Miliband failed is because, in British parliamentary politics, the perception is you only need to win over that base and little more. Miliband’s people were privately saying he only needed to get to 35 percent. But in American politics you need the center—and a majority.
Messina goes on to describe how a Democratic political operative ended up working for the Conservative Party in the United Kingdom, complete with an amusing side story about a conversation with a surprisingly politically astute Mick Jagger, but his basic conclusion is what he says in the text above. The Conservative Party won in part because its primary opponent had failed to give British voters a plausible reason to change governments, but mostly because they ran with a political message that gave voters a positive vision of the future that contrasted sharply with a Labour Party that seemed intent on returning to a past where it was continually losing elections to Margaret Thatcher and John Major. Obviously, there were other factors that played into how the election played out, most especially the near-complete decimation of Labour in Scotland which made any hope of Ed Milliband putting together a viable government impossible. In the end, though, it was Tory candidates winning in England and Wales that carried the day for the Conservatives, and that happened largely for the reasons that Messina discusses here. Republicans who might be thinking about trying to mimic the Tory triumph eighteen months from now would do well to take that into account.
One should always be cautious, of course, in trying to draw lessons from elections in foreign countries. The differences between the political systems in the United States and the United Kingdom are quite significant, and there are big differences in how campaigns are run in the two countries, for example. Additionally, the simplistic interpretation that many people are likely to make when they look at victories by conservative parties in nations like Israel and the United Kingdom is that a “conservative message” is what the GOP needs to win elections here in the United States. The problem with that interpretation, of course, is precisely that it ignores the differences between political systems and assumes that there’s some kind of similarity between, say the GOP and the Conservative Party when the reality is that there are as many differences as similarities. Drawing the conclusion that David Cameron’s victory in the United Kingdom means that the GOP can win if it goes further to the right, then, would not only be wrong, but it would not be based in reality.
Nonetheless, it strikes me that there are enough similarities between the two countries to at least draw some over-arching lessons from a Conservative victory that none of the polls saw coming. In that respect, I believe Messina when he points out those parts of the Tory message that seem to have made a difference. In many respects, there’s not really anything insightful about what he says, though. More often than not, a positive vision that looks to the future is going to resonate with voters much more than one that hearken back to the past, especially if its a past that many voters would rather forget. This, I would suggest, is one reason why so many Republican candidates are eager to disassociate themselves from the Iraq War as much as possible.
Messina argues that Republicans are in danger of making the same mistake that Labour did in the just-concluded elections. Labour under Ed Milliband was harkening back to a Labour Party before Tony Blair (which is odd to begin with considering how successful the Blairites were at winning elections). Republicans, he argues, seem content on falling back on old messages that, while they work with the base, don’t work with the electorate as a whole. Messina, of course, has an obvious bias in looking at American politics, but he does have a point here. If Republicans focus the 2016 campaign on replaying the ideological battles of the past, whether we’re talking about the battles against Barack Obama or the battles against Bill and Hillary Clinton, it will most likely fail in its effort to recapture the White House. This will be doubly true if the party pursues a message that fails to recognize the changing nature of the American electorate by clinging to party orthodoxy on issues such as same-sex marriage and immigration. Running a campaign against Hillary Clinton will be difficult, but if a Republican candidate is to succeed, it will be by offering a vision that looks to the future while painting the opposition as wedded to the past and which is far more open to voters who may not traditionally vote Republican than it has in the past. At the moment, it’s unclear that any of the declared or potential candidates for President on the Republican side, with the possible exception of Rand Paul, would be able to convey that message in a plausible manner.