What Margaret Thatcher Can Teach Hillary Clinton

No one ever doubted Thatcher's position--good or bad, right or wrong. Yet it's not always clear any longer where Clinton stands on many issues, beyond women's rights.


Artist Matt Lambert paints a commissioned artwork of Britain's former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher at his studio in Brighton, southern England February 1, 2013. (Luke MacGregor/Reuters)

In her remarkable life, Margaret Thatcher achieved what Hillary Rodham Clinton still wants (or at least what the pundits say she wants): She became the first female leader of her country, and she did it in such a determined way that her sex was almost an afterthought.

In many respects, the two women are profoundly different. Thatcher, who died Monday at 87, was a self-described "conviction politician" and arch-conservative who channeled Milton Friedman and bonded fiercely with "Ronnie" Reagan, her great pal and partner on the world stage as the Cold War came to an end. Oddly enough, she and Reagan personally even came to a similar end: suffering, in their old age, Alzheimer's dementia. And Thatcher became as much of a myth-shrouded icon to conservatives in her country as Reagan has been to America's.

Clinton, of course, has been known through most of her political career as an unabashed liberal; many conservatives still have not forgiven her for her ambitious 1993 proposal to provide universal health care, the liberal bookend to today's much-criticized Obamacare law. And unlike Thatcher, who while never denying her womanhood appeared to stride past it, Clinton has made women's rights her signature issue around the world. It was no accident last week when, in the first speeches she has given since leaving her job as secretary of State, Clinton appeared at two different forums with a singular message: "Let's keep telling the world over and over again that yes, women's rights are human rights and human rights are women's rights once and for all," she said at the Women in the World summit in New York.

Despite these differences, there are a few things that Hillary Clinton could learn from the career of Margaret Thatcher.

Lesson one: Let people know what you stand for. No one ever doubted Thatcher's position--good or bad, right or wrong. Yet it's not always clear any longer where Clinton stands on many issues, beyond women's rights.

By her own admission, Clinton has traveled a long way politically; what we're not quite sure of is where she is ending up. "I have gone from a Barry Goldwater Republican to a New Democrat," she once said. "But I think my underlying values have remained pretty constant: individual responsibility and community." Yet throughout her career, she has not clarified her philosophy, or how she reconciles the clash between "individual responsibility and community." Where does the It-Takes-A-Village Hillary meet up with the centrist New Democrat who sided with her husband's pro-business policies?

Thatcher, by contrast, always made herself starkly (and some times obnoxiously) clear on the dangers of "socialism" and the lack of a "spine" abroad. Clinton's ambiguity over her early support for the Iraq war hurt her in 2008; and despite her enormous popularity, a similar mushiness could put her presidential prospects in jeopardy in 2016, unless she mounts a whole new effort to define herself. As Thatcher once wrote archly: "What great cause would have been fought and won under the banner: 'I stand for consensus?' "

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Michael Hirsh is chief correspondent for National Journal.

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