A week into the Obama honeymoon it is debatable who has the bigger headache, the Democrats, who have been celebrating every day like it’s election day, or the Republicans, who have to work out how to rebuild their party. How and how quickly the GOP rebuilds at both the state and federal level will have a profound impact on British politics as the Tories have, to an underappreciated extent, taken to leaning on the Republicans for policy ideas in recent years.
The headline election numbers were bad enough for the Republicans — Obama 365 electoral college votes, McCain 173 — but the details were even worse. The Republicans saw their vote share drop 12 points among Hispanics — the fastest-growing ethnic group in the US, lost the suburbs to the Democrats, and were beaten among first-time voters 68 to 31 per cent when in 2004 they only trailed by seven points among this group. They failed in Indiana, North Carolina and Virginia, states that had been Republican for 40 years. And at the Congressional level, their last Congressman in New England was defeated. The Republicans are now a rump party.
During the final days of the campaign, McCain’s stump speech was all about his biography and the idea that Obama had socialist tendencies. It was a hard sell given that Obama was promoting his plans for tax cuts in a prime-time infomercial on pretty much every network, and it illustrated just how bereft of ideas the Republicans are. That the rally crowds only really got excited by ‘Drill, Baby, Drill’, with its phallic connotations, and Sarah Palin, says a lot about the intellectual state of American conservatism.
The Republicans are down the same hole the Tories were in 1997: out of office, out of ideas, their reputation for competence gone and fighting against the best politician of the generation. This bad news for the Republicans is bad news for the Tories too. The British Right has not developed a proper ideas infrastructure in recent years. It has made up for this by borrowing heavily from America. For instance, the Tory social justice agenda was largely inspired by George W. Bush’s Texas governorship. In the 2005 leadership race, David Davis and David Cameron were, in policy terms, running to be the heir to Bush — albeit the inclusive governor not the divisive president — rather than the heir to Blair. Indeed, there are few areas of Tory policy where you cannot see an American influence. Their welfare reform agenda owes much to Wisconsin, their policing reform agenda to Giuliani’s experience in New York, and the success of Mike Bloomberg’s schools policy is an underappreciated element of Tory thinking on education.
If the flow of ideas across the Atlantic dries up, the Tories — should they win the next election — will probably be running short of policies by the end of their first term. Those charged with drawing up Tory policy are already bemoaning how few ideas there were in the McCain campaign for them to adapt. But the flow of ideas across the Atlantic need not be one-way. This time the Tories can help the Republicans by showing them what mistakes to avoid. There is much for the Republicans to learn from in the Tory experience of opposing a youthful, charismatic leader with Teflon coating who could expand the geographic and cultural reach of his party.
The first Tory mistake the Republicans must learn from is the importance of accepting that the other guy won and is popular. The Tories thought Blair was a charlatan and many Republicans believe the same of Obama, but the country doesn’t: Obama’s post-election approval rating is 68 per cent. In this climate, the Republican National Committee sending out a slew of emails criticising each Obama appointment is pointless. The Republicans would be far better off keeping their powder dry. Then if Obama were to have an Ecclestone moment, the return of their guns to action would have more of an effect.
The second thing the Republicans should take from the Tory experience is the importance of patience. At the beginning of his leadership William Hague tried to move the party to the centre and to present a more modern image. His first conference speech as leader stressed ‘tolerance’ and the Tory desire to be ‘caring and ‘inclusive’. But when this strategy failed to deliver quick results, the party retreated to its rump’s comfort zone. By the time of the 2001 election, Hague was ranting about how if Tony Blair was re-elected Britain would become a ‘foreign land’.
Polls always put down immigration as important, but the Republican experience of 2006 and the Tory defeats of 2001 and 2005 show that it doesn’t actually win votes. If the Republicans decide that sending illegals back across the Rio Grande will propel them back to the White House, they could destroy themselves as a viable political force. As Steve Schmidt — who effectively ran the McCain campaign — has warned, the Republicans will not win again nationally until they increase their share of the Hispanic vote.
Third, the Republicans must not be seduced by the turnout myth. Norman Tebbit persuaded many in the Tory party that they lost so badly in 1997 because millions of their voters stayed home; disappointed that the party wasn’t more Eurosceptic or robustly right-wing. Already, some Republicans are beginning to push a similar message. They point to the fact that in the crucial battleground state of Ohio Bush received more votes in 2004 than Obama did in 2008, that Republican turnout was down this year while Democratic turnout was up, and speculate that if McCain had revved the base up more then he could have kept the race competitive. The appeal of this argument is that it suggests the party doesn’t really need to change but just needs to shout louder and be more assertive. The Tory campaign in 2001 showed that what this leads to is not victory but a shrill populism that isn’t even popular.
Finally, the Republicans should not send their best talent on a mission that is doomed to failure. The position of Hague in 1997 and Bobby Jindal, the 37-year-old governor of Louisiana, today are similar. Jindal is smart, acceptable to all wings of a divided movement and an appealing new face for a party that is trying to compete with a youthful opponent. But putting Jindal up in 2012 would be as much of a waste of talent as the Tories making Hague leader in 1997. Barack Obama has, like Blair, almost certainly won a two-term mandate, if for no other reason than the daunting number of states that the Republicans would have to flip to win back the White House.
Obama’s election has changed many things but America is still a centre-right country; the ideological composition of the electorate in 2008 was identical to what it was in 2004. But there is a danger that the rump Republican party becomes interested in talking only to itself, adamant that it represents ‘real America’ and that the rest of the country can go hang. (Palin has become a proxy in this debate; the attacks on her are so vicious because people know that she represents the most attractive face of this destructive tendency.) If that were to happen, it would see the centre of political gravity move to the left not only in America but also in Britain.
The Tories will, rightly, spend the next few months obsessing about how to get some of the Obama magic to rub off on them. Certainly Obama could do the Tories a lot of good by defusing for them Brown’s most potent charge that ‘this is no time for a novice’. But in the medium term, a revitalised GOP is the change the Tories need.