Conservatives looking for a hero should turn to Spain’s upcoming star

Isabel Díaz Ayuso, president of the Madrid region, on April 26. (Bernat Armangue/AP)
Isabel Díaz Ayuso, president of the Madrid region, on April 26. (Bernat Armangue/AP)

Free-market conservatives have been looking for a hero in this populist, Trumpian age. They might just have one in the president of the Madrid region, Isabel Díaz Ayuso.

Ayuso became the hottest political star in Spain this year when she led her center-right People’s Party (PP) to a smashing landslide victory in regional snap elections. Running on the slogan “Liberty or Communism,” Ayuso fought off vicious attacks from her leftist opponents to lead PP to a near-majority, winning more seats than the three left-wing parties combined. She now governs comfortably in a single-party government supported by her right-wing ally, Vox.

Her victory stemmed from her novel approach to controlling the pandemic. Ayuso had a strong desire to maintain a balance between liberty and safety, which led her to innovate to minimize lockdowns and business closures. She pioneered a system that tested wastewater to see whether particular communities in her large region were experiencing covid-19 outbreaks. When that proved effective at predicting spread of the virus, she used it to target lockdowns to the smallest area possible. Ayuso also built an entirely new hospital in three months to treat patients, allowing pandemic victims to receive care while still allowing other sick people to access resources.

This has made her a national sensation. Her appearances regularly draw sold-out, applauding crowds. She received a long standing ovation at a bullfight, and her fans even crowd events abroad. Alberto Mingardi, director of Italy’s Bruno Leoni Institute, told me he received an unprecedented series of requests from Spanish expatriates to attend a banquet that honored Ayuso with the think tank’s annual award. “I supposed they were young left-of-center activists and was afraid they all wanted to protest,” he said. “But they just wanted to take selfies with her!”

Her popularity has even scared her party’s national leader, Pablo Casado. Even though the two have been close, her request to lead the PP’s Madrid branch — the equivalent of leading a U.S. state party — has thrown the national party into a tizzy. Casado has not yet scheduled the election, apparently afraid that letting Ayuso become the party leader in Madrid would threaten his position. The ensuing negotiations are roiling Spanish politics, keeping Ayuso in the national eye.

It was easy to see her appeal in a recent interview at her government offices. Ayuso is decisive and fluent in the details of government. More important, she speaks passionately about her devotion to liberty. “I believe in freedom,” she says. “I believe in the person, in the individual.” She is also thoroughly modern; a nonreligious, nightlife-loving woman who sports a Depeche Mode tattoo on her forearm. Many young American conservatives yearn for a smart, serious and principled leader like her.

She won votes even from working-class voters who normally respond to populist appeals. Parla, for example, is a city that has historically voted for Spain’s Socialists even in years like 2011, where Ayuso’s PP won the Madrid region in a landslide. This year, however, PP carried Parla decisively. When I asked Ayuso how she pulled it off, she returned to her theme of freedom. “People wanted just to work, not to receive money from the administration,” she told me. “All of these people see the government of Madrid as one that supports the people who want a job.” Republicans who want to gain Hispanic working-class votes, take note.

She is continuing to press the freedom agenda, using her next budget to eliminate Madrid’s last regionally imposed income taxes. But she’s no libertarian, despite what her rhetoric might imply. She noted in our interview that “American and Spanish politics are very different. I would be between the Democrats and Republicans” if she were in America. So it’s no surprise that she argues her tax cuts will help maintain social welfare spending. “Higher taxes make it more difficult to maintain public services,” she says, “because fewer people pay taxes.”

The freedom agenda also applies to future efforts to mitigate the pandemic. “I am in favor of vaccines,” she says. “I don’t favor vaccine mandates.” Instead, she is prioritizing booster shots for the elderly and others at risk and working to persuade the unvaccinated to get vaccinated. She’s also opposed to vaccine passports, noting that “it is very easy to make a fake passport.” She wants to encourage residents to do the right thing rather than use the heavy hand of the state to force them to.

If this sounds familiar to American ears, it should. When asked who most influenced her thinking, she quickly says “Ronald Reagan.” “His speeches are amazing,” she gushes. Her mix of ideals and pragmatism, of freedom and social obligation, is very true to her idol.

Ayuso is quick to squelch any talk that she harbors national ambitions. When I asked her what’s next for her, she responded, “Madrid, only Madrid.” But she is only 43. It took Reagan eight years as governor and six more years in the political wilderness until he reached the White House. She’d only be 57 if it takes her that long to reach the Moncloa Palace, the Spanish White House. That’s only slightly older than Margaret Thatcher was when she reached No. 10 Downing Street. More than enough time to remake Spain, and perhaps inspire the world.

Henry Olsen is a Washington Post columnist and a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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