Conservatives, Nice and Nasty

Growing Up Republican: Christie Whitman: The Politics of Character

by Patricia Beard
HarperCollins, 262 pp., $25.00

At two o’clock on the morning of May 2, an elderly British Conservative looked blearily into the television cameras. Sir Marcus Fox had until a few minutes earlier represented one of the safest Conservative constituencies in Britain. He had been the chairman of the 1922 Committee, which is to say the leader and spokesman of the Tory rank and file in Parliament. And he had just lost his seat to a twenty-four-year-old Labour Party researcher whose name nobody—nobody in the Labour Party even—could remember. Sir Marcus knew that the world had turned upside down, that Tony Blair was on his way to 10 Downing Street, and he to retirement. But he smiled good-naturedly. It would, he remarked, have been pretty bad to have lost to the old Labour Party, but it was not so bad tonight. The Conservative Party of John Major had lost, but it had been replaced by the conservative party of Tony Blair; the country was in safe hands. He was sorry to lose, but hardly agitated.

An American counterpart to Sir Marcus Fox, supposing such a creature to be possible, might have drawn the same conclusion from President Clinton’s easy victory over Bob Dole last autumn. Clinton’s victory owed a great deal to the Republican Party’s inability to nominate a team that could have beaten him—Colin Powell assisted by Massachusetts Governor William Weld or Governor Christine Todd Whitman of New Jersey, for instance; but it was very much a victory for “small-c” conservatism nonetheless. The manner of Clinton’s re-election suggests that conservatism is in the ascendant on both sides of the Atlantic. Whatever the Clintonian word “triangulation” stood for—mostly an unprincipled attempt to steer between the Democrat left and the Republican right—it was not the reassertion of old-fashioned Democrat values. Economic egalitarianism and compassion toward the poor and unemployed were nowhere on the agenda. But the fact that it was Clinton rather than Dole who won suggests that what the nation wants is conservatives of a particular stamp. Or, more broadly, that nice-sounding conservatives prosper and nasty-sounding ones do not.

Clinton’s success as a conservative has its parallel in Christie Whitman’s rise to stardom as a Republican who has wowed the voters of a state where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by nearly two to one. Since 1992, British observers have been asking whether the Labour Party could find a British Clinton. In a world where Democrats prosper by looking Republican, and Republicans by looking Democratic, the next question may be whether Mrs. Whitman can become an American Blair. Like him, she has prospered by dissociating herself from the more ideologically minded members of her own party; she has been pro-choice on abortion and pro-restraint on guns, and has been unwilling to underwrite Mayor Bret Schundler’s ideas about bringing vouchers for private schools to Jersey City.

Such comparisons cannot be wholly serious, of course. It is true that Clinton has kept his distance from …

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