November 1997
by Mark Steyn

Mayflower Misery

Conservatives are cracking up because they're losers.

Why are conservatives such a bunch of losers? If you've followed the recent special editions of the Weekly Standard -- "The Conservative Crack-Up," "Conservative Crack-Up 2," "Conservative Crack-Up Meets Abbott and Costello," "Conservative Crack-Up -- The Musical," "I Can't Believe It's Not Conservative Crack-Up!" etc. -- you probably suspect it's all a cunning plot to reposition the conservative movement as America's latest victim class, eligible for affirmative action programs or at the very least an edition of "Ricki" or "Sally Jessy." "On today's show, Ferocious Right-Wing Bastards Now Riddled With Self-Doubt." In Washington, London, Ottawa, and Paris, New Democrats, New Labour, New Liberals, and New Socialists now rule -- and, although the particulars vary, a certain general pattern can be discerned. It was said of George Bush, with whom our present woes began, that he reminded women of their first husband; in fact, the conservative movement now resembles a first wives' club: it's watched helplessly as the electorate has flounced off with younger, more glamorous versions of itself. Right-wing economics in a left-wing pretty-boy: at last, a form of socialism that works.

To consider the great loser question -- albeit in more coded form -- what's left of the right slunk into Washington's Mayflower Hotel for the First International Conservative Congress, organized by National Review and various public policy institutes from Australia to Canada. We did not dwell on the past. Throughout the entire weekend, there were no mentions of Bob Dole and Jack Kemp, nor of John Major, Kim Campbell, and Alain Juppé. Maybe they were never invited, or maybe they were, but Kemp had already accepted an invitation to spend the weekend on Louis Farrakhan's spaceship communing with the spirits of deceased African-Americans, as part of his ongoing efforts to "expand the Republicans' base"; and maybe Dole was back in Russell, Kansas, still trying to get that diner to accept a personal check. (There, incidentally, is a conservative issue: What sort of world are we building when Bob Dole's word isn't even good enough for a diner in his own home town? I don't want to use Mastercard at my local store.)

On the other hand, we didn't seem keen to dwell on the present either: there were no mentions of Britain's William Hague or Canada's Jean Charest. Trent Lott's name came up, but only in a withering put-down of his half-baked views on Kelly Flinn. Newt was mentioned, but only by Newt. The columnists, philosophers, and academics made pithy, accurate appraisals of conservative principles and how they should respond to new problems. But the active politicians to whom it would fall to present this philosophy to their electorates, almost without exception, woefully under performed.

The congress divided into optimists and pessimists, the optimists being those who thought we should rejoice. Conservatives had triumphed so resoundingly they'd wound up making the world once again safe for liberals. With Soviet Communism vanquished overseas and socialist economic theory discredited at home, what difference does it make who's in Downing Street or the White House? Indeed, given the way conservative pols have failed to take up even those issues that the public overwhelmingly supports (English as the official language, etc.), you could argue that a conservative would be much better off trying to persuade a Tony Blair or Jean ChrŽtien to railroad it through than in trying to stiffen the sinews of jellyfish like Charest or Lott.

At the end of the congress, the contrast between the great days and our present ever-lowered expectations was summed up when Margaret Thatcher went round to the real Congress to unveil a portrait of herself and President Reagan: "When I think of the word 'freedom,' what comes to mind?" said the guy introducing her. "The Liberty Bell, President Reagan's speech at the Berlin Wall...and Lady Thatcher." Stirring words -- or, rather, they would have stirred, if they hadn't been delivered in the robotic drone of that electronic voice in your car that tells you to fasten your seat-belt. I was at the back of the room and the fellow speaking was staring at his shoes, so I didn't have a clear view, but, by the time he got to the bit about freedom being one of the most precious of life's, er, freedoms, I assumed he was some high school valedictorian who'd won the assignment in a competition. Instead, it proved to be Dick Armey. Those who are relying on Gore's woodenness to lose the next election had better watch out: woodenness seems to be the one area where Republicans can hold their own. You can have the best policies in the world, but, if these are the fellows you entrust them to, good luck: you can't see the planks for the wood.

Example: the guy who opened the Congress. Senator Mitch McConnell, inaugurating a weekend that was supposed to address "the challenges of the new millennium," spoke about automobile insurance. This may be a pressing concern, but it lacks a certain millennial grandeur. The great thing about Mrs. Thatcher is that she's always epic: introducing some piffling half-a-percent variation in deductible claims on petrol allowances for business travel, she'd whoomp it up into a crucial battle in the life-or-death struggle between the forces of evil and the forces of Thatch. You always knew how it fit into Tory political philosophy. Senator McConnell didn't do that: he didn't give any coherent indication of why auto-insurance is a conservative issue. And, given the way Clinton simply co-opts any part of the Republican program he fancies, the ability to frame these sideshows not just as issues but as Republican issues is crucial.

Senator McConnell's other crowd-pleaser was his soundbite-of-the-day: "Spending is speech" -- i.e., the right to blow as much dough as you want on a political campaign is part of the constitutional right to free speech; if your spending is restricted, therefore, your speech is. Leaving aside the merits of this argument, reduced to the soundbite "spending is speech" it's a surefire loser for Republicans. It concedes, for starters, the Democratic line -- that, as the Republicans always raise more money, they always have an advantage. And it's not exactly going to strike a chord with Mr. and Mrs. America -- the vast bulk of citizens who don't have the money to buy TV airtime. If spending is speech, then, effectively, they have no free speech; they are impotent. If you'd deliberately set out to concoct three words that portray the Republicans as crassly repellent fat cats, you couldn't do better.

But there's another reason why this line is self-destructive: There's no point talking about new campaign-finance laws until the White House has been held to account for breaking the old campaign- finance laws; in doing so, you're simply providing cover for President Clinton, and ensuring that your new set of laws will be instantly disregarded by soon-to-be-President Gore.

If Washington's Republican leadership suffers from a kind of blinkered complacency, over in London their opposite numbers seem to have been overcome by a desperate need to be loved: if Tony Blair is now the new Princess Di, William Hague is fast becoming the new Fergie. Hague, the youngest party leader since Pitt (he's 14, I believe), remains virtually unknown outside the Conservatives' shadow cabinet, despite the best efforts of his advisers to portray him as even younger and hipper than Blair. First they arranged for him to be photographed wearing a baseball cap while riding down a water chute in the company of a posse of whirling spin-doctors. Almost as one, the youth of Britain jeered, while blue-rinsed Tory ladies cringed. Hague was unapologetic: "Yes, I will put on my baseball cap and why shouldn't I?" he said defiantly. "I've often worn a baseball cap and, if you've lost most of your hair, as I have, you need one in the sunshine. If it's raining, you need one." So there. Hague would have been more convincing if his baseball cap hadn't been emblazoned with the word "Hague." Correct baseball cap etiquette demands one that says something like "Irv's Septic -- Greenville, Me -- Est. 1978."

Next he went to the Notting Hill Carnival, Britain's oldest Afro-Caribbean festival, and was filmed sipping on a coconut. It was not a contrivance, his office insisted. William has always loved coconuts. Yes, he has no bananas, but he's got a luverly bunch of coconuts. "Yes, I do those things and I do them naturally," he said. "I am not a frivolous figure."

The next wheeze, cooked up by one of Hague's gay advisers, was that he should attend the party's annual conference in the company of his lovely fiancee -- and share a room with her. In other words, he would be demonstrating how thrusting and dynamic the party was by having pre-marital sex. William would be hanging his baseball cap on the bedpost and telling room service to send up a couple of post-coital coconuts. At the time of writing, it's unclear whether Hague himself had any particular desire to have sex, but he was prevailed upon to do his duty for his party and his country. As Queen Victoria advised her daughter on the eve of her wedding, ''Lie back and think of England." In this case, though, having effectively issued a press-release to announce that he'd tentatively scheduled a pre-marital legover, William was requiring that England should lie back and think of him. As with the baseball cap, all that anyone noticed was how phony the whole business was. No doubt the plan was to get everybody in the conference hall in time for his speech and then, just as they're beginning to wonder why he's late, they notice the chandeliers overhead beginning to rattle in a rhythmic fashion. Still, it marked a significant shift for Conservative bigwigs, who've traditionally preferred to concentrate on extra-marital sex.

The fate of William Hague, already reduced after a mere three months to the same desperate bluffs as John Major ("Back me or sack me!"), is instructive. At the Mayflower Hotel, innumerable delegates bemoaned the way Clinton and Blair had "stolen our clothes." They were, of course, speaking strictly metaphorically. But Hague in his baseball cap -- like Dole in his T-shirt and running shorts -- is trying to steal Blair's and Clinton's clothes literally, and a pathetic sight it is. All it does is remind us, all too cruelly, of how conservative leaders seem ill at ease not just with the modern world but with themselves.

It was different with his predecessor but one. As Margaret Thatcher got her usual huge ovation at the Mayflower, I found myself recalling a Commonwealth Conference in British Columbia a few years back. At the weekend, it's traditional for all the prime ministers to go on a casual "retreat'' at which the final communiqué is hammered out in a relaxed atmosphere. ''Margaret came down in the morning dressed as she's always dressed," said Bob Hawke, the Australian prime minister. "She was in a formal blue suit, brooch, handbag, the works. The other 49 of us were in slacks and open-necked shirts. And we were the ones who felt out of place." That's power dressing. For both London and Washington, for Hague and McConnell, sartorially and politically, the Iron Lady is still the one to watch.

Mark Steyn is theater critic of the New Criterion and movie critic of the Spectator of London.