To Republicans, Margaret Thatcher was first conservative-as-insurgent

Margaret Thatcher, the former British prime minister, embodied much of what inspires US Republicans with her iron-willed stand on the effectiveness of conservative principles.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP/File
In this Feb. 1985 file photo, former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher meets with her friend and political ally President Ronald Reagan during a visit to the White House in Washington. Thatcher, who led Britain for 11 years, died Monday morning.

Margaret Thatcher will not soon be forgotten by American conservatives.

Ms. Thatcher’s death on Monday generated an outpouring of personal memories from Republican members of Congress across the country.

Indeed, in an age where conservative Republicans style themselves as revolutionaries bucking a stale liberal order, it is Thatcher, even before her brother-in-arms President Ronald Reagan, who was the first successful conservative-as-insurgent.

“Thatcher is the first point in modern Western political history at which you can say the conservatives become the reformers or the revolutionaries and the left becomes the defender of the status quo,” says Ted Bromund, a senior fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation. “Thatcher was a revolutionary and a conservative simultaneously.”

The Iron Lady, who rose to the rank of prime minister in 1979 and retained the post until 1990, had a steely, ramrod-straight alignment with conservative principles and brandished tomes by conservative economists on a handful of moments throughout her long career.

That relish at joining the philosophical debate combined with a forthright espousal of conservative beliefs and her long-running political success is an inspiring mixture to many similar-minded GOP politicos today.

“Lady Thatcher was a towering figure and a hero of mine,” said Sen. Pat Toomey (R) of Pennsylvania, elected to the Senate in the tea party wave of 2010 and former head of the fiscally arch-conservative Club for Growth, in a statement.

Thatcher’s place in political history aside Mr. Reagan is also a source of her influence. The indelible victories of Reagan lore – from foreign-policy triumphs like the fall of the Berlin Wall and victory in the cold war to rolling back government control of industry at home – are achievements shared by both figures.

“She was the British version of Ronald Reagan,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander (R) of Tennessee in a statement, “or perhaps he was the American version of her.”

Thatcher’s resonance with the contemporary GOP is also related to her dedicated appreciation for America and its global power. As Mr. Bromund points out, in a “world that isn’t overpopulated with foreign leaders who are both successful ... and also vocally pro-American,” it is just that attitude that continues to set Thatcher apart.

“She was never afraid to say she liked the United States, and lots of foreign leaders are very free with their criticisms of the United States,” says Bromund. “Margaret Thatcher said some critical things, too, but it was always obvious that it came from the perspective of a friend and a supporter.”

While her domestic pursuit of free-market economic policies inspires the tea party, her support of a robust, sometimes interventionist foreign policy continues to reverberate with the more hawkish wing of the GOP.

"Margaret Thatcher was one of the great role models in the history of the conservative movement,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) of South Carolina, a leading defense hawk, in a statement. “Her foreign policy was clear eyed and firm. She, along with Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul II stood up to Communism, the great evil of their time, with an uncompromising conviction.”

One place where Democrats offered their praise for Thatcher was on account of her being the first woman to ascend to her nation’s seat of legislative power. But the fact that Thatcher rarely reflected on her sex as a measure of her accomplishment was, in true Thatcher form, yet another place where liberals and conservatives took strikingly different views of the Iron Lady.

“No one thinks of Ayn Rand as a ‘woman writer,’ she was a writer,” says Carrie Lukas, managing director of the conservative Independent Women's Forum. “Thatcher was evaluated similarly and embraced for being brilliant and principled. One of the things that made Thatcher appealing, however, is that she didn't run away from her femininity.”

Many of the GOP’s younger generation of rising stars were young adults during the Reagan-Thatcher years, tuning in to the political scene for the first time and making the pair a formative influence on many considered to be future leaders of the movement.

“As someone who grew up in the Ronald Reagan era, I admired the special bond he had with Margaret Thatcher,” said Sen. Marco Rubio (R) of Florida, a rising GOP star with 2016 presidential potential, in a statement.

Sen. Jeff Flake (R) of Arizona, likewise, recalled that he was working at a nongovernmental organization in Namibia when Thatcher swooped in to shore up a shaky United Nations accord granting independence to the new nation.

When Senator Flake had the opportunity to discuss the incident with Thatcher several years later at an event in Arizona, Flake said in a statement: “she remembered it well, and seemed to tense up and clench a fist just thinking about it. There was no going wobbly on her watch.”

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