They say the sun never sets on an English friendship. Certainly that’s the case in the Republican primary this year, where Ronald Reagan’s partnership with Margaret Thatcher comes up often in speeches, interviews, and even campaign slogans.
Britain’s “Iron Lady,” famed for her free market ideals and tough-minded style of governance, has always been a popular figure in Republican circles across the pond, but she seems to have taken on new relevance in recent years for the party’s leading lights. While George W. Bush identified strongly with wartime Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, as he struggled to prosecute the War on Terror, national security has fallen far down the list of priorities for the party and the field is significantly divided on foreign policy. Instead, the focus is on the weak economy, which is clearly Maggie’s wheelhouse.
Making the connection explicit, Mitt Romney launched a new campaign slogan “Obama Isn’t Working” depicting a line at an unemployment office as a tribute to Thatcher’s 1978 ad that declared “Labour Isn’t Working.” Of course the “Labour” line was a pun, so Romney’s version loses the witty wordplay that helped it stand out, but in a campaign blog post his aides made clear that the Thatcher connection was what mattered.
“Those conditions and the public discontent throughout the country during that election and the parallels that Americans face today cannot be ignored,” the post read. “With unemployment rising from 3.6% in 1974 to 5.3% in 1979, the British knew there was a problem. Now, America faces 9.1% unemployment, record deficits, a soaring national debt, and millions of struggling families. One thing is clear - Obama isn’t working, either.”
He isn’t the only one dropping her name. Rick Santorum often cites her battles against the welfare state on the trail, citing her difficulties overcoming Britain’s single-payer health care system in attacking President Obama’s health law. And Michele Bachmann’s backers have played up comparisons to Thatcher in the press. Newt Gingrich has also taken to quoting her in speeches. “As Margaret Thatcher once said, the problem with socialism is you run out of other people’s money to spend,” he told the audience at the Republican Leadership Conference this month.
Gingrich, the only contender to have occupied a major party position in Thatcher’s heyday, has long gushed over her impact on conservatism around the world, calling her “the forerunner who made Reagan possible” in a 2001 interview with PBS. He also recalled some advice from her that’s probably been on his mind again lately amid his campaign struggles: “She came by early on, and she said to me, ‘Never read the newspapers. They’ll just confuse you. If they’re positive your morale will be too high. If they’re negative you’ll be too low.’”
Romney, another longtime admirer, met Thatcher himself in 2006 ahead of his first presidential run. “We talked about the condition of the world and I said, ‘I’m optimistic that we’ll overcome these problems,’” he told the London Times afterwards, “and she paused and said, ‘We always have’.”
Thatcher’s blessing was something of a rite of passage in the GOP field that year, the first primary contest since close ally Reagan’s death. Rudy Giuliani and Fred Thompson also met with the former PM to court her favor.
Sarah Palin has expressed interest in meeting her for some time as well, but her interest made international news for all the wrong reasons recently after confidants of Thatcher anonymously trashed her in the British press.Their words were particularly biting giving that Palin often drew comparisons to Thatcher in the press during her fleeting honeymoon period as McCain’s running mate.
Nonetheless, Palin’s Thatcher shout-outs underscore her outsized role in Republican mythology. It’s no coincidence that when former John McCain aides really wanted to hurt Palin, they told Vanity Fair that Palin had no idea who Thatcher was.
Among the official candidates, the Thatcher love is likely just beginning. The Iron Lady will be all over the news next week as she is expected to attend the unveiling of a statue of Ronald Reagan in London in honor of the Republican idol’s 100th birthday. Expect plenty of presidential hopefuls to link arms with her in their public statements as they try to catch a little of her small-government magic.
Benjy Sarlin is a reporter for Talking Points Memo and co-writes the campaign blog, TPM2012. He previously reported for The Daily Beast/Newsweek as their Washington Correspondent and covered local politics for the New York Sun.