Hillary Had a Reactionary Role Model, Too

The controversy over Barack Obama’s admiring mention of former President Ronald Reagan thrived this week, fed and nurtured by Hillary

The controversy over Barack Obama’s admiring mention of former President Ronald Reagan thrived this week, fed and nurtured by Hillary Clinton and her allies.

Mrs. Clinton used her rival’s comments about Reagan and the Republican Party to assert that he must think policies like “huge tax cuts for the wealthy” are a good idea. Her campaign also arranged a media conference call in which one of her supporters, Congressman Barney Frank, declared it “baffling” that Mr. Obama would “speak so favorably” of Reagan.

But there’s no shortage of precedent for a Democratic candidate lauding a reactionary leader. And Mrs. Clinton should know.

On the day before the New Hampshire primary, she referenced Margaret Thatcher, initially praising the former British prime minister simply for having “stepped up to the plate” on global warming. But Mrs. Clinton went on to imply a similarity between Mrs. Thatcher and herself: in essence, that both were effective even at the cost of personal likability.

“We had one leader—I don’t know how likable she was—we had one leader who made it a priority and got the job done,” she said.

This was hardly a comparison that Mrs. Clinton pulled out of thin air. Her campaign aides have often posited almost identical ideas.

Mark Penn, perhaps Mrs. Clinton’s closest adviser, last fall presented a more elaborate version of the argument that Mrs. Clinton would deliver in the snows of New Hampshire.

Referring to the importance or otherwise of likability, Mr. Penn told The Daily Telegraph of London:

“I think ‘buddy potential’ is way overrated. It’s not who you want to have a beer with, it’s who you want to have as president or prime minister. The Margaret Thatcher experience showed pretty clearly how the Conservative Party did so much better with strength and leadership. In the U.S., people realize increasingly that running for president is not an American Idol-like contest.”

By the standards Mrs. Clinton and her campaign have applied to Mr. Obama’s comments about Reagan’s effectiveness, it was a fairly disquieting observation. And as is the case with Reagan, Mrs. Thatcher—a bitterly divisive figure firmly rooted in the hard right—offers little that should appeal to the base Democratic constituency Mrs. Clinton is courting.

Mr. Penn and his ilk make much of Mrs. Thatcher’s electoral effectiveness. It’s true that she led her Conservative Party to three consecutive general election victories, in 1979, 1983 and 1987. But that achievement becomes less impressive the more closely it is examined.

Mrs. Thatcher’s victories came against a demoralized Labor Party that struggled by turns with a powerful far-left faction that seemed intent on committing electoral suicide and, from 1981, with a challenge from a new center-left party, the SDP.

Despite these advantages, Mrs. Thatcher’s party never came close to winning an overall majority of the votes cast. The Conservatives’ peak performance under her leadership came in her first election at the helm, and even then they were supported only by 43.9 percent of voters.

By the twilight of her tenure, in 1990, Mrs. Thatcher was the most unpopular prime minister since polling began half a century earlier. Only 24 percent of Britons approved of her performance.

Electoral victories aside, the Thatcher record should be abhorrent to someone with Mrs. Clinton’s professed beliefs.

The defining domestic struggle of Mrs. Thatcher’s premiership came in the mid-1980’s, when the National Union of Mineworkers went on strike. She prevailed after a yearlong struggle, helped in equal measure by a powerful and shrill right-wing press and by the autocratic personality of the miners’ leader, Arthur Scargill.

But, especially in retrospect, the confrontation has come to be seen as the centerpiece of a long Thatcherite campaign to crush organized labor. It is also the reason why Mrs. Thatcher’s name to this day is generally preceded by epithets when spoken in the former mining communities of northern England, Scotland and Wales.

Hillary Had a Reactionary Role Model, Too