Background: John O'Sullivan wrote a piece for National Review arguing that the GOP had nothing useful to learn from the Tory party's post-1997 experiences. I took issue with that here. Mr O'Sullivan then sent in this response. Here's my reply to his reply.
John O'Sullivan is right. It was remiss of me to overlook the fact that, as Executive Editor of Radio Free Europe, he is currently based in Prague. Nonetheless, he is also National Review's Editor-at-Large and was, for nine years, that magazines' Editor-in-Chief. He has also edited the National Interest and been a Senior Fellow at the Hudson Institute. For good measure his family home is, I believe, in Alabama*. All that being the case, I don't think my suggestion that he views conservatism through an American, rather than a British, lens is desperately unfair.
Mr O'Sullivan says that he advocates no political strategy in his piece since it is "almost entirely a negative critique of the Cameron 'narrative'". Indeed, the message of his article is that the Republican party should not emulate the Conservative party's makeover. He ends his article with the suggestion that though the GOP may need to make some changes, it should avoid taking any lessons from Britain since, though GOP reforms may prove unsuccessful, "At least, however, you won’t face the Tories’ current nightmare of staring into the prospect of failure because you copied other people’s mistakes."
That is, Mr O'Sullivan may not endorse any given agenda for Republican Renewal but he's pretty clear about what he thinks the party should not do. Ruling out B may not constitute an endorsement of A or C but it seems fair to suppose that, albeit in the negative, this constitutes political advice.
Indeed, Mr O'Sullivan begins his article by quoting David Brooks and arguing that it has become "conventional wisdom" that the GOP could learn something from the British conservatives' experience. The rest of his piece attempts to demonstrate the folly of such a course.
Despite this, Mr O'Sullivan actually acknowledges the depth of the hole the Tories found themselves in when he writes that ". One much-cited poll showed that when a policy with strong majority support, for instance immigration, was revealed to be a Tory policy, it immediately lost that support." Well, yes. Mr O'Sullivan suggests that "changing a party’s base is even harder than changing its cultural image" and this is doubtless true. But the Tories have not changed their base, they have sought to move beyond it. The party has not abandoned its beliefs on Europe; it has simply stopped shouting about them. (And ceased boring the public with them too, one might add.)
I would hazard that the Republican party finds itself in a similar position and would be better served by keeping quiet on issues such as taxation and immigration than by trumpeting policies that, though they may be popular, lose credibility when associated with the GOP.
Mr O'Sullivan says that the Tories have sought to "appease" their critics. Perhaps they have, though "listen to" might be a better way of putting it than comparing David Cameron to Neville Chamberlain. When voters consistently reject a party the party has a choice to make between irrelevance and change. Labour faced that choice in the 1980s and 90s; the Tories have since 1997. The Republican party faces that choice now.
Mr O'Sullivan says that this grim prognosis persuaded the Tories to abandon conservatism. He deplores Cameron's squishyness and makes a virtue of "nastiness". This, he says, "is merely a hostile description of one of the Tory party’s greatest strengths — its tough-minded willingness to deal seriously with real problems, even at the cost of seeming harsh. Even its enemies had respected this enduring element in Toryism. Now it was to be buried — and replaced by a strategy that was largely negative, otherwise directionless, and hostage to the passing sentimental moods of the voters."
I think this unfair on Cameron and a Tory agenda that, though still incomplete, is more radical than many of its detractors allow. More importantly it seems perverse to argue, as M O'Sullivan seems to be, that the Conservatives' failure since 1997 was that they were insufficiently conservative. Michael howard and Iain Duncan Smith were not elected by the party's liberal wing, were they? Again, the implication is clear: the GOP should avoid the "niceness" trap. From this we may also, I think, infer that Mr O'Sullivan is one of those who think the GOP ran into problems when it abandoned "true" conservatism and that all will be fine so long as the party rediscovers it. That's the magic of Ronnie's Cure All Elixir.
In his reply Mr O'Sullivan says that his "conclusion was not that conservatives should eschew reform as such but that they should not join a particular camp of reformers whose ideas may already be gelling into an ideology. They should instead shape their agenda by seeking practical solutions to serious national problems (as indeed Lady Thatcher did in the 1980s.) They need not consult doctrine in doing this. If they were conservatives, their reforms would probably be conservative too. But they must focus on dealing with real and looming problems rather than with striking attitudes and ideological positioning."
Who among us thinks conservatives should ignore practical solutions to serious problems? Not me! But here again Mr O'Sullivan suggests that it is the so-called reformers who are the ideologues whereas, by implication, those who favour a renewed and more vigorous expression of conservative orthodoxy are the Good Guys. Perhaps events will support this analysis in due course but right now that seems, shall we say, improbable.
Furthermore Mr O'Sullivan's critique of Cameronian Conservatism as little more than "striking attitudes" and "ideological positioning" seems more designed to persuade American conservatives of the folly of emulating Cameron than anything else. Again, the contrast between true believers and evangelists is noteworthy.
Tony Blair reconciled himself to the post-Thatcher age; Mr O'Sullivan seems to despair that the Tories might reconcile themselves to the post-New Labour era. Fair enough. But times change and sometimes political parties need to follow public opinion as well as lead it.
I'm delighted to be apprised of the fact that Mr O'Sullivan cautioned against a "rely upon the base" strategy a dozen years ago. But that makes it all the more mystifying that he seems to hold the Tory strategy of trying to appeal to people who do not vote Tory in such low regard. And if the extent of the Tory collapse has been exaggerated - as he claims - well, that seems odd when viewed from Scotland. Three elections on from a wipeout, the party still only has one MP north of the border.
Mr O'Sullivan says the Tories "abandoned a broadly coherent post-Thatcherite conservatism without having any clear idea of what might replace it. They are today ideologically and psychologically directionless." Again, I think this overstates matters considerably. More importantly, it seems that the price of passing Mr O'Sullivan's ideological tests might well be permanent opposition. How would that profit the Tories?
It is, of course, early days in the Age of Obama. The political landscape may well look very different in 2012 or 2016. By then the Democrats may have over-reached themselves and the public will be ready to reconsider the Republican party. But unless the GOP shows some contrition and some willingness to change then it seems unlikely that voters will endorse it with any great enthusiasm, regardless of Democratic failures.
Mr O'Sullivan would say that is also currently the case with Cameron's Tories and perhaps there's some truth to that. But it stretches credulity to suppose that the Tory party would be looked upon with more, not less, enthusiasm had it not undergone a long, difficult, sometimes painful, period of internal debate and reform.
Mr O'Sullivan complains that I quoted him out of context since "my full article dealt with the struggle between reformers and traditionalists within American conservatism" but I defy anyone to read his piece and conclude that he does anything other than conclude that the "reformers" are leading the GOP in the wrong direction. If Mr O'Sullivan doesn't provide a list of new tunes for the GOP to play it may be because he seems to think the old, favourite songs are still the only ones the party needs. After all, his article carries the subdeck "David Cameron and the need for nastiness".
America is not Britain, of course, and what works in one country may not be applicable in the other. Nonetheless, the idea that the Tories "detoxification" project has been, at best, a waste of time and, at worst, an unpardonable folly seems an improbability surpassed only by the notion that the GOP does not need to embark upon a similar journey.
That is, then, that when the electorate rejects the right and moves to the left it seems perverse to argue that the right should respond by moving further to the right. Yet that is the idea that animates much of the Republican party these days and, as his article makes clear, it is one that Mr O'Sullivan endorses too.
*Not that there's anything wrong with that. The question, mind you, is whether Mr O'Sullivan endorses the Crimson Tide or the Auburn Tigers?