The Nixon Moment: It’s time for Cameron to declare his support for the silent majority

Confronted by the 'Occupy Movement', Cameron has a Nixon moment; a golden opportunity to convince the public that they are model citizens and that their aspirations will be rewarded through honest work

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Will Cameron take this opportunity?
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Ewan Watt
On 8 November 2011 09:47

To give Ed Miliband his due, he’s aware that politics is about more than just turning up—it’s also about picking sides and a few fights.

Despite all the criticisms of Miliband, he may actually get this more than David Cameron. Electoral politics is as much about alienating certain constituencies in order to unite others, creating bogeymen to elevate champions.

Since becoming leader Miliband has – on occasion – demonstrated a talent in successfully exploiting pressure points that resonate with the electorate. His handling, for example, of ‘Hackgate’ was fairly accomplished.

But if he has occasionally identified pressure points, he is still struggling to find the public pulse, primarily his propensity to embrace issues that really have no resonance with voters outside of Islington, a characteristic he displayed all too clearly this weekend.

In the Observer, Miliband conflates the obvious anxieties held by the British public over the state of the economy with the protests outside of St. Paul’s. In fact, without detailing the actual demands or dissecting what these protestors stand for, Miliband attacks those who “will ignore or, still worse, dismiss the danger signals.”

But it also gets worse than that, with Miliband claiming that the protests “reflect a crisis of concern for millions of people about the biggest issue of our time: the gap between their values and the way our country is run.” They reflect no such thing.

This is a lazy attempt by Miliband to put a face to the British public, anointing the protestors outside of St. Paul’s as the true representatives of your average Briton.

Miliband has decided to pursue the same path tread by Senator George McGovern in the 1972 presidential race against President Richard Nixon.

The protests prompted by public opposition to the Vietnam War were such that McGovern and the Democrats believed that such a ground swell of support in opposition to Nixon would halt the president from re-election.

The protestors, thought McGovern, represented America. Nixon knew better, even going as far to embrace the Twenty-Sixth Amendment because he knew newly empowered Democrats on college campuses would nominate the unelectable.

In allying himself with the protestors, Senator McGovern did nothing to help his own cause as Nixon exploited his cheap pandering to the far left in order to define his candidacy.

Miliband’s decision to suggest that somehow the hundreds of protestors sitting outside of St. Paul’s represent the concerns of millions of Britons leaves the Labour leader similarly vulnerable. For Miliband has attempted to tap into the ‘Occupy’ movement as a way to build momentum, using it as a key constituency in his endeavor to defeat the coalition government.

Declaring that – somehow – Westminster should sit up and listen to a group of ragtag students who equate their movement with that of the resistance in Syria, and other career rebels-without-a-cause is a strategic mistake.

‘Occupy’ is not a big enough constituency to win an election, but due to the media attention it has spawned it is high profile enough to help Cameron define Miliband as an opportunist who has grossly miscalculated – and misunderstood – the aspirations of millions of people.

For all of his sins, Nixon was an exceptional strategic thinker and a great campaigner. He exploited divisions and resentments beautifully, but primarily highlighted his admiration for “the millions of people in the middle of the American political spectrum who do not demonstrate, who do not picket or protest loudly.”

As Rick Perlstein notes in his excellent book ‘Nixonland,’ the president was making “political capital of a certain experience of humiliation: the humiliation of having to defend values that seemed to you self-evident, then finding you had no words to defend them, precisely because they seemed so self-evident.”  By carefully defining what Miliband and ‘Occupy’ are for, Cameron can help shape what the public is against.

Whereas Miliband seems to believe that the folks pitching up outside of Starbucks with their Macs and iPhones are the true messengers of what’s wrong with Britain, Cameron can realistically go to the rest of the country and declare that every honest individual who works – or who wants to work – to feed, house and clothe their family are the true, as Nixon would put it, majority.

Whereas Miliband seeks to separate capitalism into “moral” and “predatory” practices, Cameron should simply tap into the same language of aspiration being put to such good use by Representative Paul Ryan in the United States.

Cameron’s primary dilemma, however, is that he will need to provide more than just Nixonian moral praise for their character—he’ll need to demonstrate the benefits (lower taxes, individual opportunity) of his path, as opposed to Miliband’s (higher taxes, power hungry unions).

Miliband has constantly attempted to tap into the popular anger that still permeates the British electorates’ psyche over the banks’ greed and largesse.  Just from looking at the protests it’s clear that they don’t even represent the “moral capitalism” that Miliband – and at times Cameron – speaks of. In fact, these protests seem to comprise of anti-capitalist G8 protestors on an extended holiday.

Not every comparison here is valid. The anti-war movement during Vietnam was far greater than ‘Occupy’ and Nixon’s crude – but overwhelmingly successful – attempts to divide the American electorate may not reap the same rewards for Cameron.

But convincing the public that they are model citizens and that their aspirations will be rewarded through honest work is always a winner. For Cameron this opportunity is golden.

Miliband has no grasp of aspiration, but appears to be finely attuned to the frivolous nature of student politics. Because that’s all ‘Occupy’ is.

Ewan Watt is a Washington, DC-based public affairs consultant. He lives in Alexandria, Virginia. You can follow him on Twitter @ewancwatt

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