Let us first bow our heads and mark the passing of Margaret Thatcher, conservative icon. Only then can we laugh ourselves silly listening to America’s conservatives laud someone who wouldn’t last a week in today’s Republican primaries.
After the former British Tory prime minister passed yesterday, the delusional hagiography immediately poured forth. House Speaker John Boehner gushed, “There was no secret to her values – hard work and personal responsibility.” Tea-partying senator Ted Cruz said that “she never once went wobbly. Rejecting the failures of socialism, she won the argument for liberty.” Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell praised her as “an iconic symbol of the transformative power of conservative ideas.” And on and on.
Of course, fulsome eulogies are de rigueur when a prominent personage dies. I get that. But just imagine what would happen today if the real Thatcher, and her real track record, were put to the litmus test in early GOP primary states like Iowa and South Carolina. What a bloodbath that would be.
Her Republican rivals would run ads attacking her stalwart support for single-payer socialized medicine, a system far more lefty than Obamacare. She once said that government-run health care is “a service of which we could genuinely be proud,” and her rivals would quote that in the ads.
Her Republican rivals would attack her for acknowledging the reality of climate change – way back in 1989, no less. In front of the hated United Nationsl no less. She declared: “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 said it was “our duty to nature” to tackle climate change. If that speech was parsed in Republican ads, primary voters’ heads would detonate.
Her Republican rivals would paint her as a gun confiscator, as an enemy of the Second Amendment right to bear arms and commit mayhem in the name of Freedom. After a domestic shooting massacre of 16 people, courtesy of a guy armed with two semi-automatic weapons, Thatcher declared: “If (gun laws) need to be tightened up, or if we think that it could prevent anything more like this, then of course that will be considered.” And it was. One year later, in 1988, her government banned semi-automatic weapons, tightened gun registration rules, and made it tougher for guns to get into the hands of people deemed to be unfit. Try running on that one in a GOP primary today.
Her Republican rivals would denounce her as a tax-hiker, and they would be right. Thatcher hiked the national sales tax (in the 2102 primaries, Newt Gingrich assailed that kind of tax as “European socialism”). British taxes, as a percentage of gross domestic product, were higher when she left office in 1990 than when she arrived in 1979. She explained that it was impossible to balance the budget without raising revenues somewhere. That kind of thinking today would be primary contest suicide; she’d be fighting for last place with Jon Huntsman.
Her Republican rivals would air TV ads assailing her support for legal abortion; and her support, as a member of Parliament, for the historic ’60s law that decriminalized homosexuality. Run with that kind of record in a GOP primary today – plus the guns, the taxes, the global warming, the government health care – and you’d get booed off the debate stage.
Granted, Thatcher did lots of big stuff that conservatives are fondly (and accurately) remembering. For instance, she drastically reduced upper-bracket taxes, stoked free-market capitalism, broke many unions, privatized many public entities, widened the income gap between rich and poor, and famously rejected bipartisanship (“I am not a consensus politician, I am a conviction politician”).
But so what? In today’s Republican primaries, none of that would help her. Her litmus test failures would doom her.
The rabid right wants its politicians to be Correct 100 percent of the time; deviations from orthodoxy are not to be tolerated. And Margaret Thatcher – much like her ’80s ally Ronald Reagan, who repeatedly raised taxes as governor and as president; who signed an “amnesty” immigration law; who didn’t give a fig about the abortion issue – was in reality a frequent deviator. Reagan wouldn’t survive today’s primaries, and neither would she. Not after she was painted as a flaming liberal.
Regardless of what her American conservative nostalgics might think, Thatcher would be toast by the time the ballots were tallied in South Carolina. Iconography is no match for reality. As Thatcher herself once told a friend, after she suffered a crushing defeat, “We’re in politics, dear.”
Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1