What It Takes: With five weeks left, Democrats and Republicans head toward a coin-flip midterm election with widely different expectations. Democrats could make big, important gains in the House, Senate, and governorships, and still feel shortchanged if neither house turns from red to blue. By contrast, Republicans are so T.O.'d that win or lose, we won't know whether the verdict on conservatism should be attempted suicide or accidental overdose.
Whatever happens on election day, Democrats can take heart that after running lousy campaigns in 2000, 2002, and 2004, Democratic candidates and campaign committees have run a strong one this time. Win or lose, Republicans can take heart that they won't be running in the sixth year of the second-most unpopular Republican administration in history again anytime soon.
What neither side is likely to learn from this election is what it takes to win the next one. For Democrats, 2006 has been the George Bush show, in a way that 2008 will not. For Republicans, 2006 has been the George Allen show—one long experiment to see just how much bad news voters can swallow.
Anyone who wants to find out how to win the next campaign should read Tony Blair's farewell address to the Labour Conference earlier this week in Manchester. Although largely overlooked here in the American press, Blair's swan song is the best political speech of 2006—and the best political memo for 2008.
The British press hailed Blair's performance as "a masterclass in the art of political speaking." It was even harder to top as political theater. For weeks, Labour had been battered by all-out civil war between supporters of Blair and his likely successor, Gordon Brown, who lives over the shop at 10 Downing Street and has waited a decade to take over the family business. On Tuesday, Brown's party conference speech was drowned out by unconfirmed reports that Blair's wife Cherie had walked out in the middle and called the man a liar. When Blair took the podium the next day, he not only gave Brown a ringing endorsement, but delivered one of the great stand-by-your-spouse lines of all time: "At least I don't have to worry about her running off with the bloke next door."
Blair devoted part of his speech to how much New Labour has transformed Britain's economy and politics over the past decade. "The core vote of this Party today is not the heartlands, the inner city, not any sectional interest or lobby," he said. "Our core vote is the country." But Blair expressed more interest in New Labour's future. Far from offering the stale incumbent mantra of "stay the course," his plea was just the opposite—to apply the same tough-minded rigor of reform and change to today's challenges that enabled New Labour to take office in the first place.
In 1997, Blair explained, Britain's problems were primarily British; today, they're primarily global—economic competitiveness, energy, the environment, and terrorism. Blair promised to spend his last year reviewing every policy to see whether it had kept pace: "The danger is failing to understand that New Labour in 2007 won't be New Labour in 1997."
But the real value of Blair's speech is his candid advice on how to win, how to lead, how to think, and how to earn the right to govern. Blair made plain that he was delivering a political memo. "It's up to you," he told his party. "You take my advice. You don't take it. Your choice."
It's a first-rate memo and shows why, for all his recent woes, Tony Blair produced the longest-serving, most successful Labour government in history. The memo makes four main points that any party forgets at its peril.
First, winning is better than losing, so long as it's winning with a purpose. Blair says New Labour got back in the game the moment "we abandoned the ridiculous, self-imposed dilemma between principle and power." These days, some Democrats spend half their time equating winning with unprincipled expediency, and the other half whining about losing. Thanks to Karl Rove, Republicans know how to say or do anything to win, and find themselves wondering whatever happened to their party's principles. It's time to remember that Henry Clay was wrong—the whole point is figuring out how to be right and be president.
Second, make change a tradition. By their very nature, political parties are creatures of nostalgia and habit. But Blair points out that a party cannot stay true to its oldest principles if it is afraid to modernize its policies: "Values unrelated to modern reality are not just electorally hopeless, the values themselves become devalued. They have no purchase on the real world." Blair says he has always loved the Labour Party, but adds: "There's only one tradition I hated: losing."