The lady was for turning, after all: How conservatives misunderstand Thatcher

MIKE SARGENT/AFP/GETTY IMAGES - President Ronald Reagan with British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in New York in 1985.

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.

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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.)

As a leader, Thatcher always wanted her way — who doesn’t? — but she had a more sophisticated understanding of governing than many of her current admirers. In her book “Statecraft,” she demonstrated characteristic certitude and bravado. But along with those came a pragmatism and flexibility that allowed her to be one of the longest-serving prime ministers in British history. “In forging a coalition to defeat one enemy,” she wrote, “we may have, at least temporarily, to deal more closely with unsatisfactory regimes which we have otherwise been right to criticize.” In other words, no leader gets everything he or she wants. What a concept.

Another lesson can be found in her book’s subtitle, “Strategies for a Changing World.” The world changes? Conservatives sometimes need new strategies? Leaders can adapt? How novel.

Even when it comes to what is considered Reagan and Thatcher’s greatest triumph — winning the Cold War — their roles are conveniently rewritten. Largely forgotten now is that both leaders endured tough criticism from their most loyal supporters for daring to reach out to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and pursue arms control agreements deemed reckless and dangerous by hawkish factions.

Thatcher, in fact, was the first Western leader to recognize the opportunity Gorbachev offered to ease world tensions, convincing Reagan that the Soviet leader was indeed, in her famous phrase, a man with whom “we can do business.” It seems the Iron Lady, more anti-Communist than Reagan on his best day, was for turning after all.

The beatification of the Thatcher who brooked no compromise — St. Margaret the Rigid — fits nicely with the group think of contemporary Republicanism. It also threatens to do to Thatcher what Republicans have done to her political soul mate. In today’s GOP, Reagan is a mythological creature, unrecognizable to his many supporters and friends. In death, he has become a ghoulish loyalty enforcer whose memory is wielded against Republican free thinkers and to whose imaginary legacy every candidate for office must pledge fealty.

In the past two GOP presidential primaries, for example, Mitt Romney was vilified for his disdain long ago of the Reagan-Bush years and spent most of his campaign time trying either to apologize for it or cover it up. His opponents ran commercials against one another asking who was “Reagan” enough, as though this had anything to do with the needs and priorities of the 21st-century GOP. The modest and forward-looking Californian would have found this cultish devotion distasteful and embarrassing.

Thatcher is fated to become the latest ghost haunting would-be Republican leaders, with a reputation no human could ever match.

I imagine she would loathe this. Thatcher thought. She mused. She read. She considered. She sometimes changed her mind. She did not substitute mindless mimicry for the hard work of thinking. She was not perfect. In fact, she could try the patience of even those who loved her. “She was a great leader,” an aide to Reagan once told me, “until she realized it.”

Her careful consideration of every detail could be burdensome. Once, when visiting a battlefield after the Falkland Islands war, Thatcher took interest in a box of live ammunition, asking a military escort what it was. “For heaven’s sake, woman,” her husband, Denis, replied, speaking to her as no one else could, “don’t get out and count it.”

Thatcher, like Reagan, was open to new ideas. They governed based on core convictions but were tolerant of 80 percent solutions — of trade-offs, negotiation, even the occasional heresy. When William F. Buckley Jr. parted company with the policy objectives of his two friends, they did not disavow him. They did not exclude him from gatherings. They did not question his conservative credentials. They simply disagreed.

What a contrast to the so-called conservative GOP that followed them. A few years later, when Buckley questioned the wisdom of the Iraq war and George W. Bush’s 2008 surge, he was all but drummed out of the conservative movement. “If you had a European prime minister who experienced what we’ve experienced, it would be expected that he would retire or resign,” Buckley once said of Bush. For such apostasies, Bush aides threatened to ban Buckley from the radio airwaves. (I know because I was there.)

Today, Republicans who think and scrutinize and muse out loud are punished. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) are pilloried as apostates for championing immigration reform, as they chastise conservatives with a different view. Yet, would it surprise Republicans to know that Reagan supported tough border enforcement as well as amnesty?

Boehner made headlines in December for purging from plum House committees those who didn’t toe his line. GOProud, a Republican gay rights organization, reaped endless, and needless, publicity because some conservatives wouldn’t let it sponsor this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference. Such maneuvers deviate from the “big tent” philosophy Reagan and Thatcher championed.

To this day, Sen. Rand Paul (Ky.) draws jeers from the Republican establishment for an approach to foreign policy whose caution and restraint is closer to Reagan’s and Thatcher’s than today’s GOP ever was. “Don’t fall into the trap of imagining that the West can remake societies,” Thatcher wrote after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. “Anyone who really believes that a ‘new order’ of any kind is going to replace the disorderly conduct of human affairs, particularly the affairs of nations, is likely to be severely disappointed.”

Had Thatcher invoked such sentiments as a Republican senator during Bush’s presidency, she would have lost her primary.

New Jersey’s Chris Christie, one of the party’s best blue-state governors, still suffers ostracism from national Republicans for daring to praise and work with Obama. Yet Reagan periodically praised Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy; and in her memoir, Thatcher even lauded Jimmy Carter.

Thatcher and Reagan showed that core convictions and compromise were not at odds — indeed, that the two impulses reinforce each other. Somehow, today’s GOP leadership has pulled off the impossible: discomfort with both.

The party’s allergy to spirited, but civil, disagreement has become a debilitating disease. It also is a disservice to the political legacies of Thatcher and Reagan, who would never have wanted rigidity and thoughtlessness to be hallmarks of the conservatism they championed. “I love argument,” Thatcher once said. “I love debate. I don’t expect anyone to just sit there and agree with me. That’s not their job.”

When the acclaimed 2011 film “Iron Lady” was released, the studio issued a promotional poster of a stern-faced Meryl Streep under the slogan “Never Compromise.” Hollywood, it seems, got her wrong, too. Thatcher’s career was a testament to the fact that principle and pragmatism can coexist. That if you base a position on conviction and logic, people will respond — even in those times when you disagree with your political base. Even in those times when your view happens to be wrong.

matt@javelindc.com

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