No one in his right mind would compare Newt Gingrich, the rebellious House Republican Whip, with Sir Geoffrey Howe, the polished diplomat whose resignation last week as deputy prime minister shook the British Conservative Party and the government of Margaret Thatcher. At his angriest, Howe speaks in more modulated tones than Gingrich does in his quietest moment.
Gingrich, the Georgia firebrand, regularly labels the opposition "immoral." The worst thing I have ever heard Sir Geoffrey call others' views is "mildly infuriating."
Still, for those of us who have noticed the parallels between the fortunes of the British Tories and their American cousins in the GOP, the signs of clanging internal dissent on both sides of the Atlantic are fascinating.
Just before our midterm elections, Prime Minister Thatcher was handed a double shock: her party lost a safe seat in a by-election, and then Howe resigned in protest of her stiff-necked attitude toward European economic union.
Howe's action not only cost Thatcher the last member of her original Cabinet and one of the most popular Tories in the land. It signaled unmistakably a loss of confidence in her judgment and her leadership, at the same moment that preelection polls here were showing that Bush and the GOP are weaker than they have been at any time since 1988.
Considering the history of these transatlantic political partners, the slippage looks more than coincidental. In 1979, Thatcher led the Conservatives to victory over a Labor government that had lost control of the domestic economy and whose leader, Prime Minister James Callaghan, had been unable to discipline his allies in the left wing of his party. A year later, Ronald Reagan led the GOP to its great win over a Democratic Party buffeted by stagflation and led by a president in Jimmy Carter who had faced a similar rebellion from his left flank.
Breaking radically with the past, both Thatcher and Reagan set their countries on parallel courses aimed at encouraging wealth accumulation for business investment and at curbing the welfare state. In so doing, they both redefined conservatism and the popular images of their parties.
Both had tough economic times during their first terms. And both were aided in the reelection campaigns -- 1983 for her and 1984 for him -- by their military successes in the Falklands (for Thatcher) and Grenada (for Reagan).
When I covered Thatcher's 1987 reelection campaign, I became convinced that, whatever Bush's limitations as a 1988 candidate, the Republicans could overcome the "time for a change" sentiment building in the United States. Britons were plainly more weary of Thatcher's hectoring style of leadership than Americans were of Reagan-Bush cheerleading.
Yet she won easily, because the opposition Labor Party was incapable of rallying all the anti-Tory sentiment, let alone putting forward a coherent plan for governing. Those same defects were apparent in the Democratic Party going into 1988 -- and proved fatal to its chances of cashing in on its political opportunity.
Reporting in Britain last year, I was impressed by the policy repairs and public-relations improvements Neil Kinnock was making in Labor. When I returned to a Washington where the new Democratic leaders of the House and Senate were attempting a similar rehabilitation of their party's image, the comparison was inescapable.
Now we come into the autumn of 1990 and find that just as Thatcher is facing a major intraparty rebellion over the challenge of Europe's rapid move to economic federation, Bush has run into a firestorm of opposition within his own party to his handling of the budget deficit. The Republican Party is just as deeply split over taxes as the Tories are over Britain's relationship with the European Community.
Also striking is the fact that serious problems plague the economies of the two nations. Inflation and unemployment are much higher in Britain than here, but the trends are adverse in the United States, and it is not clear that the policies Bush is pushing will be any more effective than Thatcher's have been.
One further parallel suggests itself. Despite the grumbling, Thatcher will be hard to displace if she chooses to remain as the Tory leader in another election. And anyone who has any notion of knocking Bush out of renomination for 1992 clearly needs to have his head examined. So these two parties probably will rise or fall on the public judgment of their current leaders.
Thatcher's Tories will be tested first. She must face the voters by June of 1992, and is likely to schedule the election earlier if she sees any brightening of the political scene.
If she wins, Bush's chances of gaining a second term are even better. But if the Tories are defeated, it would constitute a serious warning signal to the GOP.
I'm not arguing a form of political predestination here. But the dynamics of the two countries and their politics have been running a parallel course for too long to dismiss the significance of the unraveling we now see in both the governing parties. Keep your eye on what's happening in Westminster. It could be Washington next.