WASHINGTON – Three years ago, newly elected British Prime Minister David Cameron was seen as a possible model for Republicans looking to update their party after losing the 2008 presidential election. Today, he provides an object lesson in the stumbling blocks that can lie in wait.
Cameron, the Conservative Party leader, is a student of the public relations aspect of politics. He ran in 2010 as a modernizer, promising generational change and a more open and tolerant party. He presented himself as a moderate counterpoint to a succession of more conservative leaders who led their party to a series of defeats at the hands of Tony Blair and the Labour Party.
Cameron promised to attack Britain’s budget deficit, which had swelled in the final years of Labour’s rule under Gordon Brown. But he also implicitly offered a break with the roughest edges of the Thatcher era and of some of his other predecessors as party leader. His central idea was something he called the Big Society, a policy framework intended to give the party a more communitarian image and to contrast with the presumed alternative, Big Government.
Given British voters’ weariness with Labour governments, Cameron’s party should have won an outright majority in Parliament. Instead, it fell short, and Cameron was forced to form a coalition government with the Liberal Democrats. That was the first clue that he hadn’t sold the country on a new Conservative Party.
In office, he has shown why public relations are insufficient in politics when a party faces more serious structural challenges, major external problems (such as a weak economy) and internal divisions. His experience may provide Republicans with food for thought as they look to both 2014 and 2016.
The GOP’s economic policy prescriptions, while not an exact replica of what Cameron has offered, share the same broad objective, which is to attack government spending and cut the deficit sharply. In Britain, those policies, pursued in the face of continuing economic problems in Europe, have added up to a politics of austerity. The British economy has responded to this prescription with a second recession, after the major downturn in 2008, and narrowly avoided a triple dip this spring. The stuttering recovery in the U.S. has looked strong by comparison.
Cameron has made little progress in his efforts to truly soften the Conservative Party’s image. The Big Society was in concept a version of the compassionate conservatism preached by former President George W. Bush or the “Thousand Points of Light” program advanced by his father, President George Bush. But Cameron is no policy wonk, and his Big Society vision never had much policy heft behind it. Nor was it ever really tested as a marketing concept.
In a more recent bid to change his party’s image, Cameron made a major push to enact legislation legalizing same-sex marriage, only to trigger a backlash within his own party. The Washington Post’s Anthony Faiola has described how “a long-simmering rebellion . . . boiled over” into open revolt. A majority of Conservatives voted against the measure, forcing Cameron to rely on Labour votes to pass it.
Few prominent elected Republican officials favor making same-sex marriage part of a future platform. But a smaller version of this kind of civil war is unfolding in Congress over immigration reform.
The Republican advocates of comprehensive reform — which includes most of the GOP elected officials eyeing a presidential run in 2016 — are likely to find themselves a minority in their own party. If that happens, selling the voters on the idea that the party has fundamentally changed will be difficult. The best they may hope for is that passing immigration legislation this year, even over GOP opposition, will take the issue off the table in 2016.
Cameron also has had to deal with a conservative populist insurgency. This is not a British version of the tea party movement. Instead, it reflects the rise of the rightwing United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), which captured almost a quarter of the vote in recent local elections. Republican leaders in the U.S. bent to the wishes of the tea party, and as a result the GOP moved to the right between 2008 and 2012, to Mitt Romney’s detriment last November. Cameron is having to do the same with the UKIP.
Anthony King, a student of U.S. politics and professor of British government at the University of Essex, was in Washington this past week, and he described the UKIP as composed of anti-immigration conservatives who want Britain out of the European Union and a larger contingent who are simply fed up with government generally.
Cameron has responded more to the former group than to the latter. That’s particularly true of his decision to promise a referendum on whether Britain should stay in the EU.
Cameron’s Conservative Party doesn’t face the voters again until 2015. He is personally unpopular, but so are the leaders of other parties. His party trails Labour in current polling, though not by so much as to doom him to certain defeat. But if his fellow Conservatives hoped for a true rebirth with the 2010 elections, they have fallen far short.
Although an imperfect comparison, Cameron’s experience provides Republicans with several reminders.
One is that they are likely to need credible economic policies that are broader and more attractive than those focused principally on deficit reduction and spending cuts. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor has been making this argument for months. Some prospective presidential candidates, Sen. Marco Rubio among them, are looking at adding a component aimed at improving conditions for the middle class, but so far there is little to show for it.
Second, Cameron shows the limits of rhetoric and public relations. Changing a party goes beyond fashioning the image of a single leader. Before Labour won the 1997 election, Blair redefined the Labour Party by changing policies, challenging party orthodoxy and defeating his opponents inside the party. Campaign slogans may be helpful in winning votes, but as Cameron has shown, his party base wasn’t ready for some of the changes he led voters to believe he would make, and he is now fighting a rear-guard action to protect his right flank.
With President Barack Obama buffeted by multiple controversies and facing a sharply constrained legislative agenda, Republicans are understandably bullish about the current state of affairs. They will expend considerable energy probing what happened at the Internal Revenue Service, where there are still many unanswered questions. But the rebuilding process requires focusing on what ails a party, not just what problems have befallen the opposition. As Cameron has shown, that can be a long and difficult process.