Conservatives came in first in Thursday’s election in Great Britain, but it’s their failure to win a majority that Republicans should examine for the lessons it teaches. If the GOP listens, they’ll improve their chance of winning control of Congress in the congressional midterm election on November 2.
A few months ago, Conservatives held a lead of 15 to 20 percentage points in opinion polls over the ruling Labor party – a lead that translated into a landslide of historic proportions and a majority of seats in Parliament. But by election day, their lead had shrunk to 6 to 8 points and they fell 20 seats short of a majority.
Three things happened to limit Conservatives’ gains.
· They put too much faith in the staggering unpopularity of Labor, led by Prime Minister Gordon Brown. There seemed to be no bottom to his decline in support. And the party had been in power since 1997, when Tony Blair led what he called “New Labor” to a massive victory over the ruling Conservatives. In 2010, people had grown weary of Labor.
But simply being the opposition party, and nothing more, often minimizes the size of a party’s victory. It’s the easy we’re-not-them approach. Relying on it – and a bad economy, in the British case -- a party is prone to neglect the importance of making a strong case for itself.
In the British election, this was one reason Labor was able to turn out its core vote and keep Conservatives from winning a majority. The lesson for Republicans, facing an unpopular Democratic Party, is obvious: don’t expect circumstances to win for you. You need to run an aggressive campaign.
· Conservatives took a softer tack as the election neared. Though Britain’s budgetary crisis was worsening and everyone agreed the deficit must be cut, Conservatives “spelled out relatively little in the way of expenditure cuts,” Andrew Stuttaford wrote in THE WEEKLY STANDARD in March. They emphasized their vow to protect spending for the National Health Service. In the three presidential-style debates, Conservative leader David Cameron talked about serious “differences” between his party and Labor and the third party Liberal Democrats, but the differences didn’t sound dramatic.
·Conservatives “failed to make a compelling case how to restore an environment of growth and opportunity capable of bringing Britain out of its profound economic doldrums,” wrote Ryan Streeter of the London-based Legatum Institute. That they were “vague on economic fundamentals is particularly astounding.”
The problem, in short, was a failure to put sufficient distance between themselves and their opponents. Voters didn’t think Conservatives were much better than Labor in fixing the economy. The result, despite the economic distress in England: no majority.
What does the mean for Republicans? They have to make certain voters understand how different their agenda is from that of Democrats and President Obama. Republicans followed this strategy in 1980, when Ronald Reagan campaigned on a 30 percent across-the-board tax cut and in 1994 with the Contract for America.
This year, a “distance” strategy would require Republicans to emphasize their plan to repeal Democratic health care legislation, not merely to tinker with it. Also, they would benefit from adopting most or all of the reforms in Congressman Paul Ryan’s “A Roadmap America’s Future.” Those would put daylight between Republicans and Democrats.
The media distracted attention from what was really at stake in the election. This occurred after Liberal Democrat Nick Clegg did well in the first televised debate, prompting a favorable response from viewers. The press went bonkers, indulging in days of Cleggmania. In the end, Clegg’s party lost seats.
On this, the lesson for Republicans isn’t so clear. Perhaps it’s this: remember the media is not on your side and may do strange things that could hurt your campaign. Be ready for the unexpected. In Britain, Conservatives would have been better off if they’d refused to join a three-way debate including Clegg.
Republicans have one edge over Conservatives. They’re on the verge a huge recovery in the 2010 election after only two years in the wilderness (or four if you date it from 2006). It took Conservatives 13 years to get to this point – and came up short of what they might have achieved. Republicans, if they learn from Conservatives, can avoid this.