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How Center-Right Parties Can Win


There are three elections right now where center-right parties look to be doing well: Norway, Germany, Australia. We won’t know what happens for sure until the votes are in, but there are some interesting aspects of their campaigns that might hint at what center-right parties need to do to win in the 21st century.

First, all three parties are drawing a clear line between themselves and their opponents. These aren’t what GOPers in the US used to call “me-too Republicans.” (Democrat: I’m for Social Security! Republican: Me too!) In Australia and Norway, where the center righties are the outsiders fighting incumbents, they have each attacked big, visible targets (analogous, say, to the GOP attacking Obamacare).

Second, they are doing what Disraeli called “dishing the Whigs.” That is, even as they differentiate themselves from their opponents on issues where the opponents are unpopular, they are avoiding unpopular hot button issues on their own side and finding popular and even populist ideas where they can outbid the other side. Big example: the Australian Coalition is promising a much more generous parental leave program than the competition. We don’t know if this is smart or even workable policy in the long run; it is very smart politics in the short run. It not only attracts attention and wins support in itself; it sends a reassuring message to voters that the Coalition isn’t cold-hearted.

Third, they are making a strong argument that if you want a government that is rich enough to offer social benefits, you have to have a dynamic economy. The leader of the Norwegian Conservatives (an Angela Merkel look-alike), is very explicit about this. We have an expensive welfare state, she says. There’s no way we can keep this up if we don’t have policies that support innovation and business growth.

It’s hard to generalize much from experiences in three very different countries, but these successful parties all seem to be presenting themselves as sober, level-headed people who know that economic dynamism is the most important single thing government policy should focus on. In Germany and Norway, they express those ideas in a context where very generous welfare states by world standards are deeply entrenched in public opinion; in more liberal Australia, the Coalition sounds a bit more like the US GOP. But the core concept, that everything else falls apart if new business and small business aren’t prospering, is very translatable into American politics.

Building on the common sense logic that if business isn’t working nothing else will work; addressing fears that once in power you will turn out to be a bunch of wacky radicals who heedlessly wreck (rather than carefully prune) government programs on which many people rely; developing concrete proposals that both align with your core values and address the perceived needs of many voters—that seems to be a recipe that works for the center right in many parts of the world.

Will it work in the US? Will it even be tried? Those are some of the questions to look at as the GOP begins to gather itself for the next two election cycles.

[Tony Abbott of the Australian Coalition is favored to win in this Saturday’s elections.]

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  • Philopoemen

    They sound like socially-liberal fiscal conservatives, which is the opposite of the U.S. Republicans.

    • Anthony

      These parties are well to the left of the GOP on both fiscal and cultural matters. Even Margaret Thatcher – who was also to the right of continental European conservatives – said that the national health service would never be abolished while she was Prime Minister.

    • Corlyss

      How do you figure that is the opposition of US Republicans? Fits me to a tee and I consider myself a very conservative.

  • lehnne

    An assessment of politics sans economics, demography, immigration, strategic/energy considerations, evidence and experience is of little use

    • Corlyss

      A wonk after my own heart.

  • Anthony

    This article has a glaring shortcoming. It ignores the crucial difference between these European countries and America. These countries are so far to the left – by American standards – that a little conservative correction isn’t seen as threatening.

    Everyone who knows anything about politics in Western Europe knows that the conservative leaders he is mentioning are to the left of the American Democratic party.

    • Andrew Ian Dodge

      That was true 20 years ago or even 30 years ago. These days not so much. Obama certainly acts like a social democrat (in the European sense) and the GOP are more Christian Democrat (ie for big government, caring & sharing govt meddling, morality pushed by govt) than one might think.

      • Anthony

        You make some good points, but keep in mind Obamacare, whether you are in favor of it or not, is nothing like the national healthcare systems you find in Europe. Also, the kind of market based populism that is popular with many Americans just doesn’t sell in places like Germany or Norway.

        Most importantly, in most European countries, a majority of the the public believes that economic outcomes have more to do with circumstances beyond the control of a single individual than anything else. In America, and to a lesser extent in other English speaking countries, people tend to believe that the amount of work that someone puts in is the most important factor in determining economic outcomes.

        • Andrew Ian Dodge

          However in parts of Scandinavia and other parts of Europe bits of the welfare and education are being privitised. The frustration with Obama & his social democrat allies is that they are heading down a road fraught with anguish completely unwilling to learn the lessons of those that have been there before. Please also be aware that Democrats from Reid on down thinks Obamacare is the first step to single payer then an AHS.

        • Corlyss

          “Obamacare, whether you are in favor of it or not, is nothing like the national healthcare systems you find in Europe.”
          Right. Some of those are reasonably well run and may not actually lead to the social destruction and fiscal collapse inherent in the socialist model. But that certainly isn’t Obamacare.

  • Bud Hammons

    “Third, they are making a strong argument that if you want a government
    that is rich enough to offer social benefits, you have to have a dynamic

    There is rather little to cheer here. It appears there is a tepid acknowledgement in some circles in the EU that a healthy private sector is to be tolerated to provide a milch cow for the Eternal Welfare State. This doesn’t even pass muster as a utilitarian argument for economic freedom.

  • Corlyss

    All this presupposes of course that policies of the respective parties matter. 2012 was yet another election that put the lie to that, unless the nation’s voters really have decided that we want to be a failed socialist state on the European model.

  • ljgude

    Interestingly, Abbott is a Roman Catholic social conservative. Very much against gay marriage and when Minister for health under the Howard Government used his portfolio to disallow the morning after pill. So a bit of Rick Santorum there in our Tony. On the other hand, if elected, he will almost certainly take the approach of making sure the private sector is as healthy as he can make it. I think that is something the Republicans can and should do too. All that said I think the slow collapse of the Blue Model in the West means that electorates elect one side then the other as they hunt for a way forward. The left has become so wedded to the Blue Model that it has become the party of the status quo. The right is split between many factions – some reactionary wanting a return to the past, some just me tooers trying to prop up the Blue Model. And some trying to find a way forward based on various received values. Then there the Tea Party, or the Ron Paul libertarians, the passionate traditional patriotism of Marco Rubio, or the home grown conservatism of Ted Cruz. I’m not sure that the Republicans can win in 2016 – it depends on how badly Obama does in the next 3 years. Maybe the GOP will be ready to offer coherent alternatives. And maybe the electorate will punt and give the Blue Model another whirl with Hilary.

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