What's the Tory? David Cameron, Conservative Chameleon

Article excerpt

NOW IS THE WINTER of Republican discontent. It is widely agreed that the party needs to reinvent itself. It is also apparent that nobody knows what that means. For all the exhausting conservative introspection since the Democratic sweep of Nov. 4, there has been scant inspiration.

Yet one argument is gaining momentum. The Grand Old Party, to avoid being out of power for at least a generation, should imitate the modernizing example of the British Conservative Party under David Cameron.

This idea is hardly novel. On Jan. 1, 2006--less than a month after Cameron's election as Conservative leader--Rod Dreher enthusiastically identified the new-look Tories as fellow "crunchy conservatives." Writing in the London Times, Dreher commended the "conservative truth" in Cameron's concern for the environment and Britain's "broken society." "Get on with it, Cameron," he wrote. "Many of us American conservatives ... are watching and hoping you can pull this thing off."

More recently, and perhaps more ominously, a number of Right-leaning Atlanticists have also embraced the Tory strategy. At a Hoover Institution lunch in December, former Bush speech-writer David Frum, deftly repositioning himself as the GOP's intellectual savior, suggested that American conservatives could profit from the example of their British--and Canadian--counterparts. On Frum's new website, "New Majority: Conservatism That Can Win Again," one contributor praises the "diverse policy areas" of Cameron's agenda.

In May 2008, the Cameron model even received the imprimatur of David Brooks, who wrote in his New York Times column, "It used to be that American conservatives shaped British political thinking. Now the influence is going the other way. ... The Conservatives have successfully 'decontaminated' their brand. They're offering something in tune with the times. ... The only question is whether Republicans will learn those lessons sooner, or whether they will learn them later, after a decade or so in the wilderness."

Most pundits admit the obvious weakness in their analogy: America is not Britain. Yet they still underestimate the gigantic cultural and political--not to mention physical--differences between the United States and the United Kingdom. It is infinitely more difficult to "rebrand" a party, as the Conservatives seem to have done, in a country as huge, populous, and diverse as America. In the U.S., for one, there is no equivalent of the BBC telling everybody what to think. (That may seem churlish, but it is hard to exaggerate the pervasiveness of the Beeb in British life or the extent to which Cameron's message has been tailored to appeal to the corporation's journalists.)

Yet the parallels between the current predicament of the American Right and the recent history of its British cousin do bear consideration. In 1997, British Conservatives, like Republicans last year, were defeated by a seemingly unstoppable political force. Tony Blair, like Barack Obama, instilled a mood of delirious national optimism. He also dominated the political middle ground, outmaneuvering the Conservatives at every turn. The Tories were reduced to being the "nasty party," distrusted, reviled, and ridiculed--much like today's Republicans.

In 2005, however, the Conservatives, having lost several general elections, changed course. They elected the young and dynamic Cameron, who adeptly recast the party's image by focusing on climate change and social injustice. He wore Converses and quoted Gandhi. He dropped his opposition to gay marriage, along with some of his vowels. In short, he tried to become more Blair than Blair--or, as he is reported to have put it, "the heir to Blair." The ploy seemed to work. Under Cameron's leadership, the party's position in the polls dramatically improved. And after Blair resigned in 2007, with the eminently unlovable Gordon Brown taking his place, Cameron's stock rose higher still.

It is not hard to see why many Republicans--their popularity greatly diminished, particularly among the young, by eight years of George W. …

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