3 Things AOC Can Learn from Margaret Thatcher

John Elliott | February 22, 2019

3 Things AOC Can Learn from Margaret Thatcher

Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) hit the American political scene like a nuclear-tipped cruise missile. She upended a veteran incumbent in the primary and easily won the general election, becoming, at 29, the youngest woman in Congress. She enthusiastically defended “Democratic Socialism” and turned her “Green New Deal” into a political litmus test. She has three million Twitter followers. When she showed up for the State of the Union address, every camera followed her. She is being called the new face of the Democrat Party and an eventual presidential candidate.

AOC has had a spectacular start. But does she have staying power? If she wants to be around for a couple of decades, then she must read Charles Moore’s official biography of Margaret Thatcher, Margaret Thatcher: From Grantham to the Falklands, for there are three things the veteran politician can teach the fledgling AOC.

1. Master Policy Details and Government Process

Margaret Thatcher was 34 when she was first elected to Parliament in 1959. A year later she got her first cabinet position as Undersecretary of Pensions and National Insurance. It was a post reserved for women because it mostly concerned pensions. AOC might consider such an appointment beneath her. But that is not what 35-year-old Margaret Thatcher did:

The job concerned the nuts and bolts of the welfare state. Few people thought this mattered much at the time. Despite her preference for a man’s job, especially an economic one, Margaret Thatcher gradually learnt that it did. It taught her how welfare worked, and did not work, and why government spent so much money.  Unlike Tory grandees, she received an education in the engine-room of government rather than the officers’ mess, which proved to be to her advantage.

In a now famous “60 Minutes” interview with Anderson Cooper, AOC responded to questions about her use of statistics with incredulity:

‘If people want to really blow up one figure here or one word there, I would argue that they're missing the forest for the trees,’ she said. ‘I think that there's a lot of people more concerned about being precisely, factually, and semantically correct than about being morally right.’

It’s hard to imagine Margaret Thatcher uttering that defense. Between 1964 and 1970 she held six posts in the Shadow Cabinet. She knew her briefs inside out. As her biographer points out:

[C]ommon characteristics are visible in all her different guises. The first is that she could absorb almost any amount of detail and argue it through late night sittings in the House of Commons. In a debate on the Rating Bill less than two months after she took up the housing portfolio, she pleased colleagues by exposing her clever and famous ministerial opponent Richard Crossman in his ignorance of what did and did not count as reckonable income.

Thatcher would have bulldozed Anderson Cooper.

2. Use Policy Mastery in Pursuit of a Broader Agenda

Charles Moore writes:

The second noticeable characteristic is that Mrs. Thatcher took advantage of every brief she was given to pursue a common political theme. Strong though she was on the detail, most of the time she articulated a purpose behind it. She could see the onrush of socialism and she set out to resist it without apology. It would not be true to say that she was developing a ‘Thatcherite’ ideology which consciously diverged from the policies of Edward Heath, but it is certainly the case that her temperamental aversion to retreat and compromise came to the fore.

British Conservative Enoch Powell noted that Thatcher had strategic patience. She could see the forest for the trees. Her short-term political tactics were always framed by her long-term political goals. 

3. Get a Dennis

AOC got another round of publicity when she said that she did not have the money to rent an apartment in DC until her first paycheck from Congress. This would have never happened to Margaret Thatcher. She had Dennis.

Dennis Thatcher was Margaret’s husband. He was a well-off businessman who supported his wife’s career fully.

But there was more to his support than just money. Dennis Thatcher was a success in his own right. And he could hold his own on the golf course and in a bar fight. No one thought of him as an appendage of his wife. Everyone understood that he was essential to her success.

Paradoxically, Margaret Thatcher may have had an easier path to power than AOC does. Since British politics excluded women from positions of power in the 1960s, Thatcher could work away acquiring knowledge and skills relatively unnoticed. That gave her the time to become the formidable opponent in parliamentary debates, a crucial litmus test for leadership positions. 

AOC, on the other hand, has started near the top. Her tweets and interviews are front page news. Admittedly, she has great social media skills, something which Margaret Thatcher never had to be concerned about. But will the constant spotlight prevent her from mastering policy and process? 

AOC will also face plenty of temptations to leave Capitol Hill. She could probably get a high-paying gig at MSNBC just for asking. Time will tell if she has what it takes for a long political career – and if she has the strategic patience of Margaret Thatcher.


[Image Credit: U.S. House of Representatives, Public Domain and Chris Collins / Margaret Thatcher Foundation / CC BY-SA 3.0]



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