Cameron is demonstrating to the Obama administration that it remains possible to set creative policy priorities even in a time of austerity. Increased support for GAVI came after an extensive internal aid review by the British government, which rated programs according to importance and effectiveness. GAVI and UNICEF came out well. Four others fared so poorly they were dropped from core funding entirely, including United Nations programs on development and labor rights. The case for aid effectiveness requires the recognition that some aid is ineffective. Budget constraints demand focus and measured outcomes. A systematic review and rating of American aid programs, similar to the one Cameron has conducted, would make it harder for Congress to refuse needed spending.
Yet Cameron, as the leader of a conservative party, also offers lessons to American conservatives. Responsible budgets are essential -- inseparable from a commitment to limited government. But conservatism also involves a suspicion of abstract ideology and a concern for real-world consequences. The belief that some spending is wasteful while other spending is useful is not the evidence of inconsistency; it is the definition of political prudence. The refusal to draw such distinctions reveals a kind of ideological inebriation, making it impossible to display the fine motor skills of governing. Across-the-board spending cuts are as much an abdication of political judgment as across-the-board spending increases. Both are politics flying blind.
Cameron's predecessor by a century and a half, Benjamin Disraeli, specialized in the politics of sophisticated distinctions. "I am a conservative to preserve all that is good in our constitution," he said, "a radical to remove all that is bad." He was a conservative reformer, who helped mitigate the suffering of the poor in a newly industrialized society.
Cameron is now forced to limit the most expansive, unsustainable commitments of the British welfare state. But he is showing Disraeli's talent for making the distinctions that define a statesman.
In coming American elections, Republicans will require budget-cutting ambition. They will also need to show some judgment -- and a humanity that could make all of us proud.