A charismatic liberal candidate convinces voters to reject the center-right as “uncaring extremists,” and carries the election. The conservatives are confused and demoralized. The party battles internally about whether to blame the defeat on too much ideological purity, or not enough.
This may sound familiar. But I’m referring to the British Conservative Party in 2005, after the center-left Tony Blair strolled to another victory (his third) in the UK’s general election. Conservatives wondered if they’d ever win again, and some despaired for the future of their country — with power seemingly unobtainable. Yet five years later they were back in government.
For American Republicans, there are some lessons here, and they might shoot a glance or two across the pond and consider the three main ways Britain’s Conservatives recovered from their own darkest hour, their crushing defeat, and a rash of media obituaries.
First, in David Cameron, the British Conservatives finally found themselves an articulate, charismatic, voter-friendly leader of their own — a match for Tony Blair, and a vastly superior political operator to Gordon Brown. This was the single most important thing they did. The lesson they learned was to select someone to run for the top job who is at least as warm, likeable, impressive, cool, and gaffe-free as the opposing candidate. To do otherwise is to have a death wish.
I was in Boston and New York two weeks before the presidential election and was struck by the great likelihood of an Obama victory — despite Republican commentators referring to a neck-and-neck race. Romney, it seemed to my dispassionate, foreign eyes, was an earnest, hard-working candidate, but not a great one. Not one who could reach out to all levels of society. While he offered a compelling narrative about economic dilemmas, I thought he lacked the authenticity and capacity to unify and excite.
Second, on social issues, Britain’s Conservative Party stopped trying to turn the clock back to a supposedly golden age of God-fearing, two-parent families. Cameron made clear that his Conservatives “love Britain the way it is now” — open, diverse, accepting, individualistic, and multi-cultural. This made Conservative supporters uncomfortable, but most understood it was necessary. Romney never seemed to bridge this gap.
Cameron went on to frame the social debate to reflect conservative compassion, not condemnation. To huge effect, he spoke about mending those parts of the country where society was “broken” (characterized by crime, drugs, truancy, and generations living on welfare), just as Margaret Thatcher had mended Britain’s broken economy in the 1980s. As a result, Cameron started to lead, and even own, the social debate, which had traditionally been his opponents’ territory.
Finally, the British Conservatives stopped talking so loudly about issues that had obsessed them for decades yet were a turn-off for many swing voters: immigration and Britain’s relationship with the European Union. In contrast, Romney and his team had trouble focusing on the right issues.
None of this message strategy was easy for Cameron. His supporters had to be patient and determined in the run-up to the election — recognizing that while the Conservative Party might be out of fashion, Britain’s conservative instincts endure. And they had to trust that throughout, he could be counted on to remain true to his conservative principles.
Cameron’s Conservatives have proven far from perfect. Yet, despite missteps along the way, Britain has had a Conservative Prime Minister for the last two and a half years, and barring a political catastrophe, will have one until at least 2015.
Britain’s experience suggests that U.S. Republicans might take heart and have confidence that the next president could be one of their own. In the meantime, for all their sadness and anger at losing, they should be comforted that America’s soul isn’t going to be changed any time soon, just as Britain’s withstood 13 years of a Blair-Brown government more liberal than Obama’s.
The America I saw last month was the same country I’ve seen on many occasions: clean, civilized, welcoming, generous, prosperous, warm-hearted, creative, and bursting with potential.
The fundamentals don’t change, whoever occupies the White House.