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Britain’s Cameron Offers Lessons for Republicans in U.S.

by David Winston

In the London Times Online recently, editorial page editor Daniel Finkelstein offered some friendly advice to Tory Party leader David Cameron on the eve of his speech to the annual Party Conference — the British equivalent, in terms of national media attention, of a presidential acceptance speech to our parties’ nominating conventions.

As a self-described “uber-moderniser,” Finkelstein urged Cameron to “show that he still carries the modernizing torch.” Further, Finkelstein called for a “sharp break from the strategy” that had cost the Tories victory in the past three national elections.

It was a difficult moment for British conservatives, especially party reformers. When Prime Minister Tony Blair stepped down in June, there was a widespread belief that incoming Prime Minister Gordon Brown would shift from the centrist-outcome-based philosophy of Blair to become a liberal ideologue.

Moreover, the remarkable communication skills of Blair seemingly had been absent during Brown’s years as chancellor, earning him a reputation for dour economic speak and raising questions about his ability to lead.

So it was not unreasonable, as Brown took charge, for conservatives to assume the departure of Blair gave them their best political opening in a decade. After all, the situation was not unlike the 2000 U.S. election, when Vice President Al Gore, who also lacked the communications abilities of his predecessor, gave Republicans an opportunity when he moved left and away from the centrist policies of President Bill Clinton.

But only three months after Blair left office, to the great consternation of many British conservatives, it turned out Brown was an able politician who in just a few months as party leader had brought Labour to a double-digit advantage over the Tories in national polls. It was expected that with this kind of commanding lead, Brown would soon call for national elections to reaffirm the Labour majority as a new government of his making, not an extension of Blair’s leadership.

Additionally, by holding and winning a national election, it was assumed that the new prime minister effectively could destabilize the Tory Party, as another election loss likely would have triggered bitter arguments over party strategy and policies and created leadership contests that only would further divide conservatives.

It was in this difficult political environment that Cameron took center stage in Blackpool to deliver the major speech at the Party Conference. To stave off another Tory defeat, Cameron would have to step up, give clear direction to his party, keep it united and provide a persuasive alternative to the people of Britain.

Over the summer, some who had seen Brown as an albatross around Labour’s neck argued that with Blair out of the picture, the party’s program, rejected by voters in the past, would finally produce a conservative victory. Others like the “uber-modernisers” believed that the party needed to offer more than just traditional conservative philosophy.

Yes, Tories had to propose an agenda that would “appeal to their core vote.” But their definition of the core vote was more expansive, going beyond the party base to represent a winning majority coalition that included the middle class and women.

They argued for a more optimistic approach and against a “vicious attack strategy” aimed at the opposition. Instead, they asserted Tories needed to explain to voters who they are and what they stand for, with the emphasis on “for,” and how their reform policies based on conservative principles will make life better for all Britons.

Cameron embraced the reformers’ message and managed to do the impossible. Just as he had used a speech at the Party Conference two years before to rise from relative obscurity and become Tory leader, he captured headlines across Britain with a dramatic speech that provided a clear and compelling contrast between the Tory and Labour parties and their policies.

National polls have shifted in the two weeks since his speech, with some putting the Tories in the lead, causing Brown and his Labour Party to back off on calling for elections.

For Republicans and conservatives here in this country, Cameron’s speech is a helpful lesson in how to successfully position a party based on sound policies and principles and an optimistic vision of the future.

Cameron criticized Labour Party policy failures “because … if we don’t understand why they have failed, we won’t succeed,” he said; but he did so in the context of offering positive conservative policy alternatives on a range of issues. “Change, real change isn’t just about winning elections; real change is about getting ready to govern our country,” he said.

Cameron acknowledged the disillusionment of the British people with their government’s ability to effect change; but perhaps most importantly, he challenged his party, saying, “We’ve got to inspire them; we’ve got to say to them, ‘it doesn’t have to be like this.’” Cameron struck a chord with the people of Britain with what he called his “politics of belief.”

With the U.S. elections only a year away, Republican presidential and Congressional candidates should approach 2008 in the same vein as Cameron, as an opportunity to inspire the American people to believe in their ideas, in their vision and in their optimism that change is possible.

Cameron closed his speech with a challenge to Brown to “Call that election. We will fight. Britain will win.” Republicans don’t have to call for an election, but they do need to fight for change and for an agenda that offers hope to the people of this country. If they do, America will win.

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Open, Honest Health Care Discussion Is Needed

by David Winston

It’s déjà vu all over again with a familiar political formula: Democrats set up a legislative straw man, or more accurately a straw child, with which to portray Republicans as callous misers whose largess extends only to those who don’t file the short form.

In the mid-1990s, the albatross that Democrats hung around the collective necks of Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and Congressional Republicans was the federal funding of the school lunch programs for low-income students. Republicans actually increased funding for the program, but Democrats were able to successfully characterize the proposed Republican funding increase as a cut. Republicans lost that public relations battle. After the disastrous 2006 elections, the GOP can’t afford to lose another one.

This time around, the straw man is the State Children’s Health Insurance Program, which both the White House and Congress agree needs to be expanded. That’s where the agreement ends.

President Bush has proposed a $5 billion or 20 percent funding increase for low-income children without health insurance today, hardly a miserly boost.

Not surprisingly, Democrats want a $35 billion hike — or do they? Yes, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), in one of her most disingenuous moments to date, told reporters, “It was with great friendship that I reached out to the president this morning to say that I was still praying that he would have a change of heart and sign this legislation.” That comment ought to rate a spot in the cynical sound bite Hall of Fame.

Democratic Caucus Chairman Rahm Emanuel (Ill.) probably came closer to the truth when he talked out of school, telling The New York Times, “If [Bush] vetoes the bill, it’s a political victory for us.”

Maybe Pelosi ought to pray that Emanuel stops talking to the media. Republicans, however, ought to focus their effort to counteract Democratic spin on a very simple argument.

First, SCHIP was designed to ensure that low-income children — repeat, children — who don’t qualify for Medicaid are able to get health insurance.

Second, when the program is abused by including adults, insured children and families far above the poverty level, fewer poor children can benefit from the program.

Speaking recently at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt told students, “The intention of SCHIP was to focus on the poor, it was not intended as a vehicle for expansion to every American.”

But that seems to be the hidden agenda of many supporters of the Democrats’ proposed SCHIP expansion. They claim that their proposal will add 4 million more Americans to the ranks of the insured.

What they don’t say is 1.2 million already are eligible for Medicaid but simply have failed to sign up for the program. Almost another 2 million are above the poverty level requirements of the program, and the majority of those already have private health insurance. Spending $35 billion to cover 900,000 children makes one wonder where the money is going. You don’t have to wonder long.

Some 14 states already use SCHIP funding to provide health insurance to adults. In fact, 13 percent of this year’s SCHIP funds will pay for health insurance for adults. For example, Wisconsin currently uses 75 percent of its SCHIP funds to cover almost twice as many adults as children. Many other states spend significant portions of their SCHIP funding for adult coverage.

What Democrats really are proposing is an incremental, backdoor approach to universal health care by including many middle-income children who already have private insurance. Emanuel himself admitted as much when he called the SCHIP debate “spring training” for the inevitable battle over universal health care at a Judiciary Committee Congressional Forum on Universal Health Care with Single Payer Financing in April.

What happened to the Democrats’ cries that SCHIP is all about “the children”? Clearly, by Emanuel’s own words, the SCHIP battle is nothing but a stalking horse for universal health care. Republicans need to understand the politics behind the Democrats’ SCHIP strategy.

But that’s not enough. They must offer an alternative that addresses the need for all children under 18 to have health care insurance either through their parents or through SCHIP and Medicaid. That may mean upping the president’s $5 billion ante. But it ensures that the political debate focuses on the right question: not whether Republicans are willing to ensure all children in America without insurance get coverage, but why Democrats want SCHIP to cover adults and children who already have insurance.

People want and deserve an open and honest dialogue about how each party’s proposals will address the problems of health care coverage, access and funding for all Americans.

What the country and certainly poor children don’t need is the leadership of the majority party trying to score political points by exploiting the health care vulnerabilities of low-income children just as they did with the school lunch program appropriations a decade ago.

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