In Britain, Tories get a taste of what lies ahead for conservatism.
Friday, Oct. 21, 2005
Mug Shot: As they flip back and forth between CSI: White House and America's Most Wanted Congressman, Republicans are busy worrying how to get through the next week. But a year from now, after a rough midterm election, the GOP might get around to asking the more important question: Where do they go from here?
Anyone who wants to skip ahead and learn the answer should take a look across the pond at a real conservative crackup: the race for Conservative Party leader in Britain.
Yesterday, Tories narrowed the field to two candidates: David Davis, a bland, traditional conservative who was the front-runner until the party conference heard him speak; and David Cameron, a 39-year-old upstart who is running away with the race by promising to "modernize" the Conservative Party.
Here and in Britain, most of the press has ignored the philosophical particulars of the race in favor of the scandalous personal ones. Since Cameron's campaign took off, the tabloids have given him the full Kate Moss treatment. News of the World led the way with the immortal headline, "PARTIES WITH A COCAINE-SNORTING DOMINATRIX." Never mind my idle speculation about three-in-a-bed lesbian orgies with Maggie Thatcher. The New Tory motto is "No politics please, we're British."
A "professional dominatrix" nicknamed "Mistress Pain" claimed that she had once used cocaine with Cameron's campaign manager. The charges seemed straight out of the Rove playbook, and Cameron defused them with a classic Rove defense: He won't say whether he has ever used cocaine, but he denies using it in the four years since he became a member of Parliament.
It's hard to say whether what's going on here and in Britain is a "conservative crackup" or, as Rush Limbaugh insists, a "conservative crackdown"—but "conservative" and "crack" seem to be the key ingredients.
Oddly enough, rather than torpedoing his campaign, the tabloid stories only strengthened Cameron's credentials as an outsider. While the tabloids aren't finished with him yet, most Tories seem to agree that background checks are the least of their party's problems.
Modernism: Any time Democrats and Republicans in the U.S. feel down on their luck, they should take solace in the plight of British Tories. Under Maggie Thatcher in the 1980s, Tories were on top of the world, dominating a weak, feckless Labour Party. Once Tony Blair modernized Labour, British conservatism collapsed and has scarcely been heard from since. A succession of Tory leaders have led the party to humiliation and defeat. In this past election, Blair cruised to victory even though his own party was up in arms about Iraq.
While Britain is not America, that morality tale holds lessons for both American parties. In a sense, Republicans and Democrats alike are always on the brink of elimination, if the opposing party can find and sustain a course that corrects its weaknesses so it can show off its strengths. As with any enterprise in a competitive environment, a party must modernize—or it will wither and die.
Bruce Reed, who was President Clinton's domestic policy adviser, is CEO of the Democratic Leadership Council and co-author with Rahm Emanuel of The Plan: Big Ideas for Change in America.E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his disclosure here.
Photograph of Barack Obama by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.