An abiding aphorism for the Republican Party’s rightward shift is that Ronald Reagan couldn’t win a party primary today. Something very similar could be said of Margaret Thatcher.
The ocean of hagiography that poured out from congressional conservatives after her death Monday belies a simple truth. A quick read of the Thatcher record reveals a lot of daylight between the way she ran Britain in the 1980s and the way the GOP would run the federal government now.
To be sure, there is enough similarity to support the effusive nature of the tributes from the American lawmakers, so many of whom came of age when she was prime minister and view her as an ideological and stylistic role model for the current age of unapologetically confrontational politics.
“There was no secret to her values — hard work and personal responsibility — and no nonsense at all in her leadership,” said Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, who might expect to be remembered with a similar sort of epitaph someday. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., hailed her as “an iconic symbol of the transformative power of conservative ideas.”
Beyond that, it’s undeniably true that Thatcherism’s central tenets are at the core of what the members of today’s GOP espouse almost universally: Nations do best when the hardworking and self-reliant are given plenty of individual liberty and economic freedom to pursue prosperity, and such democracies have a duty to repel aggression by governments that would control the lives of their people.
It's that mission statement that Republicans have in mind when they cite, as they often do, one of the many maxims attributed to Thatcher: “You have to win the argument before you can win the election.”
And so, as a comprehensive assessment of her record is spooled out, many senators and House members may be taken aback by evidence that her free-market vision was not quite as unambiguous as her eulogists describe.
Most jarring — to a GOP that has spent so much energy in the past three years trying to stop, repeal or replace Obamacare — Thatcher never wavered in her support for Britain’s government-run health care system, which really does live up to the Republican “socialized medicine” epithet. While Thatcher privatized many other government-run industries, from airlines to steel mills, the National Health Service she left alone, hailing it in her memoir as “a service of which we could genuinely be proud” for both its cost-effectiveness and quality of care.
Hill Republicans who say that cutting taxes and spending is the best way to stimulate growth will be disappointed to learn that Thatcher’s fiscal record doesn’t support them. Government spending as a share of the British economy increased during the first seven years of her administration, and taxes were a 2 percent bigger share of the country’s gross domestic product when she left office in 1990 than when she arrived 11 years before.
The main reason is that her signature 1979 income tax cut was revenue-neutral, paid for by almost doubling the country’s value-added tax. That earned her derision from economist Arthur Laffer, godfather of the modern congressional GOP theory of “dynamic scoring.” And during last year’s presidential primaries, when Mitt Romney said he’d be open to a national sales tax as part of an IRS overhaul, the Newt Gingrich campaign derided such talk of “European socialism.”
Conservatives hoping to hold the line on a pair of non-fiscal, hot-button issues will blanch at Thatcher’s support for government intervention to reduce gun violence and to curb global warming.
Thatcher’s government in 1988 enacted legislation that banned a range of weapons and bolstered gun registration requirements after a 20-something Berkshire man, armed with two semi-automatic rifles and a handgun, shot and killed 16 people including his mother — facts eerily similar to those of the December massacre in Connecticut.
Just two years later, when fears of climate change were in relative infancy, Thatcher called for a bold intervention, saying it was required by both “our duty to Nature” and economic common sense. “The danger of global warming is as yet unseen but real enough for us to make changes and sacrifices so that we do not live at the expense of future generations,” she declared.
The irony here is that even the Iron Lady’s convictions were not as unbendingly hard right as her lionizers in the American conservative movement now expect from everyone who hopes to succeed in Republican politics. So, should her few deviations from today’s American conservative orthodoxy cause her admirers to drop Thatcher from the roster of GOP heroes? Or should it be enough that she’s Reagan’s soul mate for the ages?
How the party decides that question will say plenty about its views of moderation and ideological tolerance while working to rebrand itself for the campaign ahead.