The Spectator’s Alex Massie offers a sharp critique of David Cameron’s Conservative Party on the occasion of its pathetic third-place finish in a critical by-election, asking “What’s the point of the modern Conservative party?” It’s the sort of question that has to be asked when a ruling party is bested by both its junior coalition partner and a minor insurgent party. Yet many of the problems Massie identifies sound eerily familiar to those who watch the GOP.
Consider the leaflet . . . distributed to voters in the dying days of the Eastleigh by-election campaign [which noted the Conservative candidate had been endorsed by a UK Independence Party MEP]. . . . Perhaps this was just a last, desperate, ploy in the final days of a disastrous by-election campaign. But it also shows how the Tories have allowed themselves to be spooked by the UKIP phantom. They have become so obsessed with protecting their right flank they’ve forgotten that overloading their defences on the right leaves them exposed elsewhere.
Substitute “Tea Party” for “UKIP” and you’ve got a worry stone that’s surely been turned over and over in the minds of GOP leaders. The Tea Party injected the Republicans with a new energy, catapulting them to victory in 2010. Yet it’s a strident, populist movement, a little too grubby for many moderates and independents. It’s thus a blessing and a curse to the Republican establishment. While the Tories have to fear UKIP stealing their votes outright, the Tea Party works within the GOP, flooding primaries and conventions with activists eager to put unelectable and unpolished loyalists on the ballot. The Tea Party has lost momentum since its 2010 heyday, and the party elite have grown somewhat better at channelling the fury vote to more viable figures. Yet the bruising 2012 presidential primaries showed that candidates are still “overloading their defences on the right” and being left “exposed elsewhere.”
A little further along:
The Tories have been very good at telling the country what they don’t like but rather less good at telling us what they do like. There is a negativity about the government these days that is rotting its ability to tell a good story. We know what the Tories are against but not what they are for. . . . They’re seen as being against (or at least uncomfortable with) much of modern British life. Some of this is the result of unfair (and often hostile) media exaggeration but not all of it. Individually, [their] positions may have some merit; collectively they risk making the Tories seem a party for sour and angry people who rather resent the country they live in.
This is a far less urgent issue for the Republicans than for the Conservatives, as the Republicans are in opposition and the Conservatives are in government. The Republicans have no real obligation to propose budgets or otherwise attempt to form a positive agenda, as they have little power to implement it. Yet the chief problem confronting the GOP in the next election (and probably for many elections after that) will be the ongoing normalization of a larger government than is traditional in the United States. Opposing the emergence of new clienteles, new regulations, and higher baselines for revenue and spending will require an essentially negative agenda. Austerity is never popular.
On social and cultural matters there is a similar risk of appearing “against (or at least uncomfortable with) much of modern life.” Those who seek to keep the party’s tent from expanding one inch—for example, by fighting to remove a state party chair for supporting gay marriage in a state where just 29 percent of the population opposes it—could turn it into a reactionary, not conservative, force. These groups are weakening, but the challenge of appearing “sour and angry” will remain. With the building blocks of American society rapidly being altered and destroyed, the task of developing a conservative social position that can win broad support grows more difficult—and more urgent.