Matt Latimer, a speechwriter for President George W. Bush from 2007 to 2008, is the author of “Speech-Less: Tales of a White House Survivor.” He is a founding partner of Javelin, a communications and media firm.
American conservatives see in the late Margaret Thatchera defiant, unwavering leader whom they would wish for themselves. Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.) was one of many who this week extolled the Iron Lady’s “uncompromising conviction” — words such as “unyielding” and “unrelenting” also proliferated across the political right. House Speaker John A. Boehner (Ohio) took special note of Thatcher’s famous “the lady is not for turning” line, while Republican congressman Steve Stockman of Texas invoked Thatcher’s legacy as a call to “crush liberalism.” Invariably, conservatives link her to Ronald Reagan, painting them as two icons who never yielded to concession or compromise.
Baroness Thatcher certainly built a formidable reputation as tough and unpersuadable, and she displayed these qualities more often than not. Yet there is something troubling about the Republican celebration of her political intransigence, and it is not just the fact that it’s largely a myth.
As Republican leaders undertake a desperately needed postmortem following their 2012 defeat, honest introspection is critical — not just of themselves, but of their erstwhile heroes. Instead, GOP leaders have issued unpersuasive declarations that they finally get it, rather than engaging in the harder work of crafting a coherent philosophy that sees the world as it is.
Today’s Republicans risk censure for daring to depart from a rigid Reaganism or Thatcherism that never existed. Those who propose an alternate path risk expulsion from a political movement that was founded on diversity of opinion and an appreciation for thoughtful dissent. As the many Thatcher tributes demonstrate, the American right is ignoring its fundamental problem: a disdain for reality. Just like conservative leaders convinced themselves in 2012 that nearly every opinion poll predicting President Obama’s reelection was biased and wrong, so, too, they have convinced themselves that their heroes were who they wanted to them to be — not who they truly were.
Thatcher once dubbed herself a “conviction politician” and during her later life decried the virtual extinction of that species. But this term, and her use of it, remains widely misunderstood.
Thatcher did indeed bemoan leaders who reflexively sought out political consensus — “something in which no one believes and to which no one objects” — and pitied those who sought positions simply to be liked. Shrewdly, she seized the “Iron Lady” moniker as her brand, one needed in a country that during the late 1970s seemed feckless and adrift. Like any smart negotiator, she began discussions from a posture of strength, with the perception of inflexibility if not the practice. Such tactics were especially essential for a woman trying to prevail in what had largely been a man’s profession.
But the truth is that Thatcher, as well as Reagan, compromised all the time, in ways large and small. On tax rates, on spending, on their approach to the Soviet Union. Before she became leader of the Tories, Thatcher was considered in some quarters a rather run-of-the-mill middle of the roader. (Reagan, we often forget, was once a Democrat.)