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From Britain's Tories, lessons for the GOP

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By Anne Applebaum
Thursday, March 25, 2010

And now, my fellow disappointed conservatives, former conservatives and disgusted conservatives, it is time for all good Republicans to come to the defense of David Frum, and to endorse his critique of radical right-wing talk-show rhetoric. If you've left the party in disgust, then call up your friends who are still members and get them to do it for you.

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I am not writing this because David Frum is my friend, although he is. I am writing this because I was recently in London, where I got a close-up look at the state of the British Conservative Party, once the intellectual motor of free-market economics in Europe and the rest of the world. After almost two decades in power, the British conservatives lost, in 1997, to Tony Blair's slicker, smoother, Labor Party -- a party that had accepted the basic premises of Thatcherism and then moved on.

At the time, the Tories reckoned they would be in opposition for a couple of years at most: All they had to do was return to their basic principles and declare them with greater fervor and more self-righteous anger than ever before. They knew what the British people really wanted, they told one another, and ran two angry campaigns that reeked of xenophobia. The result: The Tories have been out of power since 1997. Thirteen years.

After the second, decisive election loss, the conservatives finally made some changes. They elected a new leader, younger and "modernizing." They changed their social policies to match the views of the majority. They supported the green movement -- hugely popular among their own, heavily rural electorate -- and accepted the basic premises of Blairism and moved on. Above all, they changed the way they spoke: No more shouting. No more anger. No more arrogance.

The result? The Tories are once again real contenders. But only barely. The latest polling shows that even now, with Britain ruled by one of the most unpopular prime ministers in recent memory, they are still not assured of a victory over Gordon Brown's Labor Party, and recent polls have them slipping. I can't think of anything worse for Britain than another term in office for Labor, a party that has left the United Kingdom with a vast public deficit, an awkwardly (but irreversibly) reformed constitution and heavily restricted civil liberties. But the Tory Party's nasty public image -- arrogant, mean, small-minded -- is proving difficult to discard.

I haven't asked him, but I'll bet that Frum had this example partly in mind when he wrote, a couple of days ago, that the American Republican Party had just had its Waterloo, even though it doesn't apparently know it.

As a fully paid-up member of the mushy political center, I am in favor of universal access to health care and also horrified by what President Obama's bill is going to cost. So whom should I be voting for? If congressional Republicans are determined to fix this bill by, say, reforming the medical malpractice laws that drive up costs and put doctors out of business, then they've got my vote. If, instead, they are going to scream "communist" and "fascist" at our democratically elected president -- thereby achieving nothing at all -- then I want nothing to do with them.

In the coming days, many conservative pundits will surely echo the words of another pundit I know and like, Tunku Varadarajan, who has dismissed Frum as a "polite-company conservative," and who argues that Frum is wrong about that nasty talk-show rhetoric, on the grounds that "passionate extremism is part of any political debate." Well, "up to a point, Lord Copper," as a certain British novelist would put it: The history of the Tories shows that if by exciting your base you lose the center, then you lose the next election too.

applebaumletters@ washpost.com


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