August 7, 2010


Why David Cameron is the new Dubya: Our young, energetic prime minister has more in common with the discredited former president than you may think (Andy Beckett, 8/06/10,

Having missed the heyday of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, the two men began to rise instead when voters were losing their appetite for transatlantic conservatism's more caustic remedies, and positioned themselves accordingly as "compassionate conservatives". Most journalists took this carefully constructed moderation at face value.

Voters were less impressed. In the 2000 presidential election Bush, infamously, received about half a million votes fewer than Al Gore, despite Gore's over-complicated and stiff public manner, and a jittery economy. In this May's general election, it is already less remembered, Cameron's Conservatives scraped 36% of the vote – only a slight improvement on the share the party won in its heavy defeats in 2005 and 2001 – despite Gordon Brown's Gore-style presentational problems, and despite a British economy that was not so much jittery as post-traumatic.

And yet, out of Bush and Cameron's poor election showings in 2000 and 2010 has come a new, bolder British and American conservatism. You could call it a politics of wishful thinking – or of bluff.

First, the two men spun their thin or nonexistent electoral mandates as decisive expressions of public support. Thus, in America, throughout the month-long tumult of recounts and court challenges that followed the 2000 election, Bush presented himself as the contest's victor and Gore as the loser, when there was plenty of evidence that the situation was unclear or even the opposite. Similarly, in Britain this May, on election night, with a mere three seats declared (all retained by Labour) and the exit polls predicting a hung parliament, Cameron's key ally, George Osborne, told the BBC: "I do not think there's any question of Labour being able to continue [in office]." A few commentators fleetingly raised an eyebrow at Osborne's characteristically cocky, premature triumphalism, but it helped create a conventional wisdom about the election result that led directly to the formation of the coalition.

Once in government, Cameron, like Bush, has again exceeded the electorate's instructions. The cautious, inclusive, compassionate conservative has turned into a divisive rightwing radical. Both men have used national emergencies as political cover. For Bush, it was 9/11 that justified his huge, reckless neocon experiment. For Cameron, the emergency, more contrived, has been the double one of a hung parliament and a large national deficit – neither of them remotely unprecedented, but scary enough, in a Britain recently grown accustomed to political and economic stability, to make a shrinking of state spending drastic enough to satisfy the zaniest of 80s Thatcherites look like common sense, for the time being, to an impressive 55% of voters.

Will Cameron's shallow and opportunistic radicalism succeed? The Bush precedent suggests it may, but only for a few years. Bush was re-elected in 2004, and his approval ratings remained healthy until mid-2005. During this post-9/11 period, it sometimes seemed as if his government could be kept aloft almost by agenda-setting rhetoric alone, without the clever thinktank ideas and canny legislative arm-twisting and basic administrative competence that sustained Thatcher's and Reagan's administrations.

The dirty secret of the Anglosphere is that just as David Cameron resembles Blair/Clinton/Howard/Harper/W, so too will the next Republican president resemble the British PM.

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Posted by Orrin Judd at August 7, 2010 8:26 AM
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