The title was an old favorite of Dean Barnett’s (I think I’ve got it right). The occasion is a post over at Non-Zombie Contentions in which Jonathan Tobin takes a gander at the British Conservatives’ slo-mo political trainwreck. His summary:
Cameron, a telegenic upper-class swell, believed that Tories who were actually conservatives couldn’t possibly win. So he recast his party to be advocates of global warming alarmism, criticized the closeness of the Labor government to that of George W. Bush (Obama’s disdain for Brits of any political persuasion has taken the juice out of this issue), and proposed an approach to domestic issues based on a communitarian idea of a “Big Society,” which sounds suspiciously similar to Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” liberal boondoggles of the 1960s.
Yet far from greasing the skids to victory, trying to be liberal has actually derailed his campaign. A third party, the Liberal Democrats, are further to the Left than Labor on many issues and have in Nick Clegg, a far more focused leader than either Prime Minister Gordon Brown of Labor or the good looking but feckless Cameron. Cameron thought that fudging the differences with Labor would make it easier for him to win.
Tobin clearly hopes that American conservatives will draw the proper lessons, and adopt a bold colors, no pale pastels approach, and I do, too, but I hope that conservatives avoid overdoing it, both for the sake of winning, and eventually for the sake of governing.
Tobin pointedly quotes David Frum’s counsel of late 2008 to emulate Cameron: “The leader you want,” wrote Frum, “is someone who appeals to the voters you need to gain, not the voters you already have”; Frum also urged that Republicans follow “educated and professional voters” to the left.
Frum and Cameron may both have gone too far, but there’s some truth in those observations that we ignore at our peril. The initial aphorism is clearly overstated. Taken literally, it’s even a bit ridiculous. The leader you want is someone who appeals to the voters you need to gain, as well as the voters you already have. It’s possible – the British rightwing blogs seem to bear this out – that Cameron has actually come close to embodying Frum’s absurdity: a leader who expressly does not appeal to his own constituency. But that doesn’t make the opposite, an appeal strictly to one’s own, desirable.
As for those “educated and professional voters,” do conservatives want them or not? Is it really true that the only way to appeal to them is through liberalism? How comfortable are we with the implications of an affirmative answer to that question? If not, is it safe to assume that they’ll simply drift back en masse after getting re-educated on the ills of the left?
Some speak about ideology these days in a way that turns the label almost into a compliment: “Ideological conservative” becomes functionally equivalent to “committed conservative” or “solid, feisty conservative” or maybe “conservative who reads the right books and sites.” But being “ideological” is never to a thinker’s credit, and rarely a positive in an election. It implies reflexive or unthinking adherence to a program or perspective.
Each winning Republican of the major ’09-’10 prelims – McDonnell, Christie, Brown – embraced a politics that suited his immediate environment, oppositional but not heavily ideological. None ran as an ideologue.
Maybe it’s just that the leader who appeals to the voter you need to gain is the leader who appeals as a human being – through strength of character – one who is neither ashamed of nor obsessed with political precepts. Maybe some, enough, of those educated voters – and members from other prematurely written-off constituencies – can be approached by a conservatism that’s intellectually confident enough not to rely on ideology, and also not to try to buy off voters with poor imitations of the other side.