The idea of an "ownership society" is not new. In August of 1949, 23-year-old Margaret Roberts, out of Oxford and standing for office for the first time, addressed (according to a British newspaper) a "garden meeting of Young Conservatives at the home of Mr. J.E. Brittenden" in Orpington, Kent. "We Conservatives," said Margaret Thatcher, as she would later be known, "want power more widely diffused through private ownership, so that you never get more power in the hands of the government than you get in the hands of the people."
Years later, she and her party acted upon her vision, and the economic results were good. But politically, things worked out badly. Very badly. The story has more than a little relevance for America's Republicans today.
In this space a few weeks ago, I argued that the Republican Party's win, 51 percent to 48 percent, in the 2004 presidential election leaves it far from majority status. "You must be nuts," would be an accurate summary of the e-mail I received from Republicans. One reader was kind enough to attach a red-versus-blue map of U.S. counties—a map that shows a sea of Republican red, because the Democratic vote is concentrated in cities. Lest I miss the point, the map was captioned, "My country!" Many Republicans, and some Democrats, look at the Republican sweep in 2004 and conclude that the GOP rules, and the Democrats are cast into outer darkness.
Actually, the situation is a little more complicated and a lot more interesting. Obviously, the Republicans enjoy a parliamentary majority. That is, they control both the executive and legislative branches of the national government, much as the winning party would do in a parliamentary system. What they do not have is a popular majority: a partisan base large enough to win national elections. They are closer to a popular majority than are the Democrats. They have the opportunity, which the Democrats do not, to fashion their parliamentary majority into a popular majority. They have a plan to do so, and it is a credible one. Democrats should be worried.
But so should Republicans.
For the last couple of decades, America has had, in effect, two minority parties. Both parties are dominated by ideological activists who are more extreme than the electorate. The Democrats are to the left of the average voter; the Republicans, to the right. Neither party can govern except in coalition with a large body of nonideological centrists, who feel (and often are) neglected by both parties. In 2004, both parties held their bases, but the Republicans improved their performance in the center. That won them the election, but it gives them little cause to relax. The center remains in neither party's camp; in the 2004 presidential race, independents split their vote evenly.
Whichever party finds and dominates the center will command a popular majority, possibly for years to come. Which party will that be? Domination requires three ingredients: a will to move to the center, a program that appeals to centrists without alienating the base, and a compelling leader with the same kind of broad appeal. Democrats have the will, but they do not have a program, or a leader. Their position is similar to that of the British Labor Party in the 1980s, when Labor had the will to capture the center but not the way.
In contrast, the Republicans have no shortage of leaders-in-waiting. President Bush may be too polarizing a figure to convert independents into Republican loyalists, but waiting behind him are Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, outgoing Secretary of State Colin Powell, and perhaps Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb. All, except possibly Hagel, are figures with star power, and all could have a centrist appeal.
The Republicans also have a plan. I've called it demand-side conservatism; Republicans are calling it the ownership society. Reducing the supply of government by cutting spending has been a political loser, so the new idea is to reduce the demand for government by giving people more control over their pensions, health insurance, schools, and so on. Give people partial ownership of Social Security, for example, and they should shift their loyalty from the party of government (the Democrats) to the party of empowerment (the Republicans). Writing last month in The Weekly Standard, Fred Barnes quotes Bush campaign manager Ken Mehlman as saying that the ownership-society agenda will lock in millions of voters by "changing the incentives of politics."
The Republicans' plan, then, is to use their parliamentary majority to drive an ownership agenda that will create a popular majority. That was also the British Conservatives' plan.
In 1976, soon after Thatcher attained the Conservative leadership, the party published a manifesto titled The Right Approach. It called for giving the people "more power as citizens, as owners, and as consumers," by "lowering taxes when we can, by encouraging homeownership, by taking the first steps toward making this country a nation of worker-owners, by giving parents a greater say in the better education of their children." That should sound familiar. When it came to power in 1979, the Thatcher government made good on its word by selling off 1.7 million public-housing units, privatizing public industries, and creating tax and insurance incentives to encourage people to switch to "portable personal pensions."
The economy responded. Entrepreneurial energy began to pulse through Britain's sclerotic veins. Meanwhile, the Labor Party was reeling. It detested the Thatcher agenda but lacked new ideas and the will to break with its left-wing union base; it staggered from one weak leader to the next. The Labor Party appeared to be in terminal decline.
What the Tories then discovered is what ruling parties all too easily forget: There is no position more treacherous than having a parliamentary majority without a popular majority. With undivided power goes undivided credit, but also undivided blame. Worse, the possession of a parliamentary majority may embolden the party's extremists and lull the party away from the center, thus blocking, rather than advancing, progress toward a popular majority.
In Britain, the public liked the results of Thatcher's policies but never really bought into her ideology of self-reliance. Most people saw no need to choose between independence and government support. "Whatever works," was their view.
Moreover, while economic modernizers steered the Thatcher government, cultural conservatives dominated the Conservative Party and busied themselves with such matters as a "no promo homo" law (against "promoting" homosexuality). Tory opponents of British integration into the European Union, whatever their case's merits, appeared backward-looking and anti-modern. After Thatcher's ouster as leader in 1990, the party's divisions spilled into plain view.
Labor—make that New Labor—was meanwhile rushing to the center under an appealing and very shrewd young leader. The party "must reconnect with the mainstream majority," Tony Blair said. He was not afraid to knock partisan heads together and usurp Conservative economic policies. In the 1997 election, he promised not to raise income-tax rates and proclaimed that Labor would spend no more than the Conservatives had budgeted. He promised to be tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime. He adopted the Conservatives' economic program but welded it to cultural modernism ("cool Britannia"). In startlingly short order, the center belonged to Labor, and, with it, a popular majority. The Conservative Party, once seemingly indomitable, lay nearly in ruins.
Britain, of course, is not the United States, and in one respect, Bush's agenda differs markedly from Thatcher's (and Ronald Reagan's): Thatcher wanted to reduce both the demand for and the supply of government. Bush seems to think he can spend his way to smaller government, reducing the demand for government while, at least in terms of spending, increasing the supply. His approach, while arguably more cynical than Thatcher's, may prove more politically successful. Perhaps more important, no Democratic Blair has appeared. Yet.
Still, Democrats have a peculiar strength. They know they are in trouble. They know what will become of them if they do not capture the center. The Republicans now control the whole federal government. Most of their leaders are to the right of the party, and the party is to the right of the public. Their House speaker seems intent on governing from the party's center, not the country's. As it did on intelligence reform, the congressional party is likely to resist Bush when he pulls toward the center. Republicans have the program and the personnel to build a center-right majority. But so did Britain's Conservatives.
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