Living in the world of Thatcher & Reagan

Michael Barone
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Posted: May 15, 2006 12:05 AM

As Washington insiders pore over the latest low job-approval ratings for George W. Bush, and as aficionados of British politics ponder the latest low ratings of Tony Blair, let's take a longer look at the political ebb and flow in America and Britain over the last quarter century or so. There is a certain parallelism.

In the late 1970s, both countries experienced something like collapse -- a collapse of the Keynesian economics dominant in the post-World War II years, a collapse of the accommodationist foreign policy prevailing since the setback in Vietnam.

From that collapse arose two improbable leaders on the political right: Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. By conventional standards, they were unacceptable: Thatcher was a woman, Reagan a septuagenarian -- and both were too far to the right. Their policies were attacked as hardhearted and reckless. But they worked. Economic growth resumed, Britain triumphed in the Falklands, and America prevailed in the Cold War. Thatcher lasted 11 years in office, Reagan eight -- both were followed by lukewarm but clearly right successors, John Major for seven years and George H.W. Bush for four.

The policy and political success of the parties of the right in time produced a center-left response from the opposition. Bill Clinton in America and Tony Blair in Britain largely accepted the Reagan and Thatcher policies and promised modifications at the margins. A successful formula: Clinton won in 1992 and 1996, and served eight years; Blair won in 1997, 2001 and 2005, and has now been in office more than nine years.

When you look back at all these leaders' job ratings in office, you find an interesting thing. The transformational Thatcher and Reagan had negative to neutral job ratings during most of their longer years in power. Thatcher's peaked upward after the Falklands victory; Reagan peaked from his re-election until the Iran-Contra scandal broke two years later. Their divisiveness, the stark alternative they presented with the policies and conventional wisdom of the past -- all these held down their job ratings.

In contrast, Blair and Clinton for most of their years in office had quite high job ratings. Blair's ratings for his first eight years were probably the highest in British history. Clinton, after he got over his lurch to the left in 1993-94, also enjoyed high job ratings, especially when he was threatened with impeachment. The center-left alternative, by accepting most of the Thatcher and Reagan programs, was relatively uncontroversial, determinedly consensus-minded, widely acceptable to the left, center-left and much of the center-right segments of the electorate.

Thus, the crunchy, confrontational right was in its years in power not so widely popular as the soggy, consensus-minded center-left. Yet surely history will regard Thatcher and Reagan as more consequential leaders than Blair and Clinton. Thatcher and Reagan defined the issues and argued that, as Thatcher once famously said, "There is no alternative."

Blair and Clinton mostly accepted the definitions of the right and then deftly articulated an acceptable center-left alternative. As a left Labor M.P. critical of Blair recently wrote in the Times of London: "Mrs. Thatcher, even at her most controversial, thought, acted and governed with the grain of her ordinary party members. But Tony Blair has tested to destruction the idea that you can run the Labor Party in total opposition to its dearest-held beliefs and values."

It is in this context that we should consider George W. Bush's current poor job ratings. For all the high ratings for center-left leaders, it remains true in America and Britain that the policies of the right are more acceptable than the policies of the left -- and are capable of beating the center-left, too. George W. Bush fashioned a right appeal that succeeded in defeating Bill Clinton's handpicked successor. Britain's Conservatives, preoccupied by the bitter split over Thatcher's ouster in 1990, failed to provide a viable alternative to Blair for a dozen years.

But today, under David Cameron (who was 24 when Thatcher got the boot), they are doing so. It is in the nature of things that the right, while sharply defining the issues and winning most serious arguments, should also stir more bitter opposition than the soothing, consensus-minded center-left. All the more so because Old Media in this country, more than in Britain, is dominated by a left that incessantly peppers the right with ridicule and criticism, while it lavishes the center-left with celebration and praise.

Even so, we continue to live in the world of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, as we once lived in the world of Franklin D. Roosevelt.