The Sunday Take

What the GOP could learn from Britain's Tories

At 43 years and seven months, Conservative David Cameron is Britain's youngest prime minister since 1812. He and wife Samantha have been married since 1996.
By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 25, 2010

British Prime Minister David Cameron's visit to Washington last week offered a reminder of the moment of truth looming for the Republican Party.

Cameron sits atop a new coalition government that is taking tough and controversial action to reduce Britain's sizable budget deficit. He is also a conservative politician with a modernizing bent who has sought to make his party more relevant to modern Britain.

Republican leaders in this country would say they share those goals and ambitions. But Cameron has few genuine imitators among his fellow conservatives on this side of the Atlantic. At a time when he has shown flexibility by keeping his eye fixed as much on the center as on the right, most Republicans here are worrying more about the right than the center.

Given the political climate in this country, that may seem the wisest course. For now, it is certainly the easiest. The real energy in the electorate exists largely on the right -- most intensely within the "tea party" movement.

Republican leaders have been scrambling to stay abreast of this movement since it began to take hold more than a year ago. Their hope is that by doing so, they will gain a decisive edge in voter turnout in November and score significant gains in the House, the Senate and races for governor.

The state of the economy has created a sour, anxious mood in the country. The massive deficit, which the administration estimated Friday would hit $1.4 trillion again next year, has stirred a small-government backlash. President Obama's policies, symbolized by the new health-care law, have intensified those sentiments, not only among the GOP's conservative base but also among many independent voters.

Britain's Conservative Party spent 13 years in the political wilderness after the Thatcher and Major governments. Its multiple electoral losses forced a succession of leadership changes and ultimately a major rethinking under Cameron when he became leader almost five years ago.

Republicans never assumed they would be back contending for power this quickly after their losses in 2006 and 2008. That they are now in a position to take back the House, and possibly even the Senate, has robbed them of the period of self-reflection and renewal that all major parties must undergo from time to time.

Cameron sought to smooth the harsh edges of conservatism -- or at least convince voters that he was trying to do so. Some of it was purely symbolic, but some was real. Republicans here have done little of either. Because of the polarization around Obama's presidency, Republicans have, if anything, brushed aside debates about how far is too far right. Their intellectual energy has gone into deconstructing Obama's policies, not examining their own weaknesses.

Republicans are debating how much they should reveal about their ideas and priorities before November. Some want to lay out a platform or program. Others contend that is both unnecessary and foolish. Why not simply ride the anti-Obama wave and worry about what to do later?

In Britain, Cameron's party won the most seats in the national elections in May, but not an outright majority. That was a reminder that, however much the voters had tired of the Labor Party and its leader, Gordon Brown, they still had reservations about the Tories. Every reputable poll showing Obama in trouble this year has carried as its subtext the message that voters trust Republicans even less.

Cameron fought the campaign on a platform to attack the deficit -- in more detail than Republicans are offering so far in this election. Once he formed his new government with the Liberal Democrats, he attacked the deficit vigorously -- but also with more flexibility than GOP leaders here are showing. Having resisted the kind of no-taxes pledge common among conservatives here, he constructed a deficit-reduction package that includes about $1 in additional taxes for every $3 in spending cuts.

What will Republicans do next year if they hold power in the House or are close enough to a majority to force Obama into genuine negotiations over the budget? Cutting spending will be their first priority, but will they also insist on extending George W. Bush's tax cuts even for the wealthiest Americans without an offsetting reduction in spending?

Another test could come when Obama's debt and deficit commission issues its recommendations late this year. Erskine Bowles, the co-chairman of the commission, recently said Cameron's budgetary mix was an attractive formula.

Sen. Judd Gregg (N.H.) , the ranking Republican on the Senate Budget Committee and a member of the commission, said Thursday on ABC's "Top Line" program that he would be open to a package built along those lines. He said spending cuts should make up by far the biggest share of the commission's package, but added, "I think it's likely that there will have to be a revenue component."

Whether others in his party share Gregg's analysis may not be known until next year. By then the House could be in Republican hands. Cameron has shown that governing requires both conviction and flexibility. The jury is still out on whether his economic prescriptions will work and whether he and his coalition will pay a significant price for the painful steps they have recommended.

Republicans are still well behind their British counterparts in stepping up to the challenges of becoming a governing party. But they are asking voters to trust them nonetheless.

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