The argument goes on -- and on-- over these two questions: are Ronald Reagan's strengths as a conservative the same as those of Margaret Thatcher in England? And, are the Democratic Party's weaknesses the same as those of the British and European democratic left? Probably there is something to be said both for and against each comparison.
At another level, however, in that mysterious realm where a kind of irrational, unspoken, even apolitical exchange occurs between leader and led, I think Mrs. Thatcher does have a particular asset that Ronald Reagan shares--one that appears to be lacking in most of the Democratic presidential candidates. She can say no--not only can, but frequently does. Mrs. Thatcher is stubborn. She is willful. She resists. And there is nothing she seems to enjoy resisting so much as the highly touted advice of the village elders and wise men as to what is the best, in fact the only, course for a humane, responsible and prudent statesman to take.
Reagan, the man who fired the air- traffic controllers and whose resistance to conventional economic advice by early last year had some of his most dutiful friends and advisers discussing him as if he were a lunatic relative living in the attic somewhere and needing to be humored only because he controlled the family purse, profits from a variation of this same quality. When I say that most of the Democratic candidates don't possess it, I have in mind what looks to be their lifelong unseemly scramble for the devotion and dollars of just about anything that walks. That is the impression, anyway.
The quality we are talking about is, of course, something more than mere closed-mindedness or a capacity for commitment to dug-in mistakes. Rightly or wrongly, this willingness to say no suggests something larger than itself, and that is authority. People in democracies, especially in ours, are a little schizzy about authority. They like it and they don't--or at least they say they don't. And they have very strict ideas about what kind of authority a leader can exercise (no funny military uniforms or plumed hats) and the point at which the quest for authority becomes personal, arrogant, threatening. But authority in its better sense is surely what people are seeking in a leader, and it is an intimation, a whiff, of this that comes when the leader defies both expectation and the counsel of the Approved Ones and says: "No, absolutely not."
Admittedly, democratic publics-- again, especially ours--have a peculiar way of arriving at the conclusion that the leader must know something, may --dare we even suppose it?--know more than we do and thus be an authoritative figure. Our first move is to attack him or her for being inflexible, stubborn, stupid and unfeeling, not to mention a menace to world peace. Actually, all this may be true. But if the object of our assault doesn't yield, at least not on everything or all at once, we ourselves start to yield a little grudging respect. Finally, you will see such respect occurring in people whose own self-interest may be harmed by what the leader decides to resist. Logic gives way here to psychology and emotion.
But long before this respect is given, tests must be passed. All the pressures of our political system work to soften leaders who hang tough, to knock them off their course or, failing that, to disparage their motivation. The press and the political opposition and all those people at bus stops in the rush hour who are interviewed on the issues speak of inflexibility and warn against the worst and also, importantly, put it about that the decision was taken from some politically craven or financially venal impulse. Then we all wait a spell and look to see what happens. If nothing changes, we are awed, or at least shaken in our derision and contempt. Maybe, just maybe, that crazy you-know-what in the White House or 10 Downing Street knows something .. .
Carter was too complaisant, too analytical, too eager to please and/or to embrace all constituencies to have this quality. He was, naturally, called "stubborn" and "inflexible" at some times and in some moods. But he was seen to give in too much, to be too willing to reconsider or to reason with just about anyone. The Russians, on the other hand, prosper from precisely the opposite tendency. American foreign policy may be seen as many things, but one is surely a string of astonishments (and debacles) proceeding from the collapse of our ever-recurring certainty that they wouldn't do that-- wouldn't do whatever it was because the outcry and opprobrium would be so great. Generally--from Prague to Kabul --they would and did, earning much more respect and deference from us, I fear, than they would have by backing off at the prospect of much international hollering and invective.
There is no way to go from Kabul to the Wisconsin straw vote and all the rest of that Democratic Party stuff without suffering a terrible case of the intellectual and political bends. But the Democrats are the ones who need to be considered in these terms and who need to do some thinking about it themselves. It's not just that some of them seem so undignifiedly eager to please everyone and to espouse every cause and to be for all things in a way that suggests they have no ideas, no inner strengths and no capacity to choose and thus make things happen. It is also that the political arrangements under which they are operating for the coming presidential election have been set up in a way almost sure to reinforce the impression that they can't, don't even know how to, resist pressure.
Aware of their particular frailties and requirements, various organized groups on which these Democrats have come to depend--such as labor and the public- education establishment--are scheduling their traditional endorsement proceedings so as to have a more decisive voice in which of the many contenders shall get the Democratic nomination in the first place. The resulting hustle for their favor has been as unattractive as it was predictable. I have this feeling that Mrs. Thatcher's "lesson" for them--her potential gift-- does not have to do with the economics book or the Argie-bashing affair, but rather with this one strength of hers. The only Democrat who will have a chance is the one who shows people he can say it and mean it, even when the cost is real--can say N-O, no.
Copyright (c) 1983, Newsweek, Inc.
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