It was predictable that Michele Bachmann would seize on the new Meryl Streep movie about Margaret Thatcher to try to revive her faltering campaign by pitching herself as America's Iron Lady. Her gender is about the only thing left to distinguish her from the crowded field of conservative populists all vying to deny Mitt Romney the Republican nomination. But really Michelle Bachmann has little else in common with Margaret Thatcher.
The most important thing about Mrs. Thatcher was what a professional she was. From her schooldays onwards she dedicated herself to beating the men by working harder, doing her homework and always being better briefed than her colleagues and opponents. When the opportunity presented itself she developed a radical agenda and reinvented herself as an anti-establishment outsider; but she had made her career over the previous sixteen years by unspectacular hard graft in the centrist Conservative party of Harold Macmillan and Edward Heath; and even at the height of her power as Prime Minister she worked fantastically hard to master every subject and was always careful not to get too far ahead of public opinion.
She was never a raving ideologue but an instinctively cautious and pragmatic Westminster politician primarily interested in delivering good government. She believed in principle in cutting taxes; but she also believed in balancing the budget first, and would raise taxes if necessary, as she did in 1981, until she was in a position to cut them again later. She was horrified by President Reagan's irresponsible budget deficit, and did not hesitate to tell him so.
Bachmann, by contrast, is an anti-Washington populist who positively scorns the necessary compromises of government because her motivation is fundamentally not political but religious. Her gut policies are anti-abortion and pro-marriage, while her central foreign policy is unconditional support for Israel. Mrs. Thatcher claimed some sort of Christian faith more Old Testament than New -- but never made much play with it politically. She was often critical of what in England was called the permissive society; but on socio-sexual questions she was in practice tolerantly libertarian. She had voted in the 1960s for both the liberalization of abortion and the legalization of homosexuality, and never retracted her support on either issue. She was personally sympathetic to Israel she had a large Jewish electorate in her constituency -- but was equally aware of the injustice to the Palestinians and frequently pressed Reagan privately to put more pressure on the Israelis to negotiate. She would never have skewed her whole foreign policy to appease Israel. Unlike Bachmann and most of the Republican right today she was always aware of the complexity of issues. She could be a tub-thumping British patriot, but she also saw herself as a global stateswoman.
All in all when Michele Bachmann dares to compare herself to Britain's Iron Lady one can only echo Senator Lloyd Bentsen's famous put down of Dan Quayle in 1998: Congresswoman - you're no Maggie Thatcher.
John Campbell is the author of The Iron Lady: Margaret Thatcher, from Grocer's Daughter to Prime Minister, published by Penguin Books ($16).
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