Modern politics is often fought on the battlefield of the 19 inch or the 50 inch screen with grim bursts of image artillery directed by experts and consultants. But for all the experts and consultants, it is the ability of the politician to communicate what he feels and believes is true that trumps everything else.
Margaret Thatcher's death has touched such a nerve because her passing takes place in the shadow of mediocrities like David Cameron who talk a great deal but say nothing at all, whose preferred form of communication is to avoid controversy. Likewise so many American conservatives turn to memories of Reagan because when they turn toward the marble mecca of D.C., all they see from their party are former conservatives scurrying to evolve into blithering idiots in time for the next election.
The missing element is conviction. When conservatives remember Thatcher and Reagan, they hear the echoes of clear and principled messages. Neither of them were perfect as politicians, but their rhetoric was perfect because they knew what they believed, said it clearly and colorfully and enjoyed themselves doing it.
Modern conservative parties eschew that kind of plain talk. They flee from principle selecting candidates who speak as indirectly as possible and mean as little of what they say as they can get away with. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn't. But no cause is advanced in the course of these evolutions from communication to obfuscation.
Conservatism never wins. It loses. It comes to be associated with slick empty men and women who smile a lot and lie a lot. And that in the long run is far more devastating than the occasional senate candidate who says something horrible or idiotic. Candidates like Mitt Romney are more damaging than a hundred Todd Akins because they fix the image of a soulless party that cares about nothing and no one.
It is better to have the public think that the Republican Party stands for horrible and divisive things than to think that it stands for nothing. There are people who will vote for horrible things... but who will vote for nothing except in opposition to the something that the other party is selling?
Conservatives bemoan that Obama, who blatantly said that he would raise energy prices, redistribute wealth, diminish national power and ram through a radical agenda, could be elected twice. And the wrong lesson that GOP leaders have taken away from that is that the country turned to the left and that they have to turn with it. The real lesson is that voters will choose a radical agenda over no agenda at all.
Obama clearly stood for something. Many of those things were lies and deceptions, others were horribly destructive, but they were there. What did McCain and Romney stand for? They stood for good governance which is an unexciting thing. It might have been enough in the past when a good work ethic, modesty and reputability were more admired than they are today. And even then candidates with an inability to communicate anything of significance would have suffered.
Today even Thatcher's ideological foes were forced to pay tribute to her. Will anyone pay tribute to David Cameron on his passing? Doubtful. He will be far less hated, but also far less loved because he will have done nothing to earn any extreme or feeling. Had Mitt Romney won and served for two terms, is there any conceivable possibility that he would have been remembered in the same breath as Ronald Reagan?
It's not a matter of the pivotal period. All periods are pivotal in their own way. Today's leaders face challenges every bit as stark as those that Reagan and Thatcher did. What they lack is the ability to transmute those challenges into transformative victories because there is no conviction behind their political aspirations.
Many of the candidates from conservative parties are unable to understand the ideological argument or to take it seriously. To them politics is policy and policy is non-ideological. They run on the conservative side of the aisle because it's the more reasonable camp, but they don't understand the ideas that animate the other side. They don't understand that the battle is not over individual policies, but a clash of worldviews.
In the last election, Obama articulated the campaign as a clash of worldviews. Romney did not. To Romney, this was about policies and he is still hurt and baffled that the superior policies didn't win. But to Obama, this was about the big picture ideology and that was how he fought the campaign. Instead of choosing one of the primary candidates who understood that this was an ideological fight, the leadership favored the most electable candidate who proved to be unelectable because he did not understand the terms on which the fight was taking place.
Thatcher always understood it and articulated it. As did Reagan. They weren't mere creatures of politics and policy. They understood that the politics and the policy, the task of getting elected and getting things done, was taking place within the context of a larger struggle between worldviews. And they were animated by the conviction that one worldview was healthy and the other was toxic. Their great gift was to combine that with communications skills that allowed them to forthrightly express that struggle in a way that most people could understand and appreciate.
Modern conservative parties have far too much messaging and too little message. You hear a great deal about how responsible they are and very little about what they stand for. They have a great many strategists and very few thinkers. They are political machines that no one really likes, including their own voters. They have industrialized conservatism and mass produced conservative politics with no content.
Thatcher did not work overtime to try and seem reasonable the way that her successors do. Neither did Reagan. They did not present themselves as the sane choices, but the best choices. They could compromise but their images were uncompromising. They were not laboring to be the moderate alternatives to something else. Instead they became the model to which alternatives were presented. Most of all they gave everyone within the sound of their voice the sense that they knew what they were doing and that they wanted to begin doing it as soon as possible.
Winning the argument is hard, but the most important ingredient is conviction. Politics flows in tides that ebb and churn. The unshakable position of yesterday becomes the controversial one of tomorrow. There is no politically secure territory. Only territory that can be won and lost by the politics of the next day. The short term politics of the poll may win some elections, but it has no long term future. The movement that sets its agenda by the polls has no ideology. Its leaders are mercenaries who will believe and do anything if their consultants tell them to. Only the movement that has convictions can win long term victories.
All this can seem abstract, but it comes down to plain human needs and feelings. Most people vote for what they think is a good life. And they vote for leaders who care about them and will keep life good for them and their children. There are any combination of policies that can cover that ground and it is the candidate who can convincingly make the case for the good life who stands the best chance of winning in the short term and the long term as well.
Thatcher and Reagan convinced millions that they were fighting for the good life. And they delivered. The damning sin that the left cannot forgive them for is that their policies, at home and abroad, succeeded more often than they failed. But they didn't convince with mere empty words, with the same tired slogans that stood for nothing and opposed nothing and advocated nothing. They did not skulk in on the heels of consultants who made them seem as nonthreatening as possible. Instead they made it clear that they were here to fight against the forces of decay, the ideologies of terror and the sense of mortality that comes to every great nation in the hour of its decline.
Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan are dead now, but in life they won a victory over the seeming deaths of their nations. They came in the hour of twilight and they stepped down with the sunrise. Their victories were temporary but they showed that leaders can stand against decline and breathe new life when most of the experts believe that all is lost and that we must learn to accept that. They showed us that with conviction and courage we can resist the inevitable.