Dan Balz is an American political reporter and quite good at his job. But as the saying goes, when you are a hammer, everything looks like a nail. So unsurprisingly, Balz carefully watched the triumph of Jeremy Corbyn in the UK Labour Party’s leadership contest and immediately thought of: Bernie Sanders. And so we got a piece that wasn’t just about Jeremy Corbyn or Bernie Sanders, but about “the coming debate inside the Democratic Party.”
I guess the comparisons are semi-irresistable. Like Corbyn, Sanders was considered a bit of a fringe figure on the left (at least beyond Vermont) until he started running for president. They both have been taking anti-corporate and anti-globalization positions for years that are suddenly very popular in and even beyond the big center-left political party. Jeremy and Bernie both have a sort of rumpled charisma. And the parties that one is taking over and the other is trying to take over have both had (along with center-left parties around the world) a longish engagement with “modernizers” who succeeded politically for a good while amidst lots of complaints from party stalwarts that they were selling out ancient principles.
And to be clear, there was a direct, organic relationship between the New Democratic and New Labour “movements” in the 1990s, as I can attest from my perch then at the Democratic Leadership Council. Blair’s people went to school on All Things Clinton, and at the normally Clinton-worshiping DLC there was a sneaking admiration of Blair as what Bill Clinton might have been without the libido.
But that was twenty years ago! While the New Democrats have, for better or worse, greatly influenced the direction of the Democratic Party and its leaders, up to and including the 44th President of the United States, its domination of the party really ended in 2000, when Al Gore ran a campaign that felt more like Mondale than Clinton. Meanwhile, Tony Blair stayed in office until 2007, fatally tainting his party with primary responsibility for participation in the Iraq War, before handing off the Labour Party and the British government to his long-time associate Gordon Brown just as the wheels were about to come off the global economy. Today, Democrats are again the presidential party trying to hold together a winning coalition; Labour is in disarray having lost two consecutive elections, the second one especially large and disappointing.
But it’s the selection process that just can’t be compared at all, as Balz does note after he’s explored the Corbyn/Sanders parallels:
The process of winning a presidential nomination here is far different than becoming leader of the Labour Party. Money and machinery count heavily, and victory must come repeatedly through the course of primaries and caucuses in all the states.
Yeah, I’d say there’s a pretty big difference between a national electorate of about a half million Labour Party members and self-selecting dues-paying “affiliates” (the latter being a new wrinkle in the Labour leadership process that instantly changed everything and produced a majority of the voters that chose Corbyn) and separate primaries and caucuses in fifty states pretty much open to anyone and held over five months.
There’s also no figure remotely analogous to Hillary Clinton in Labour politics (and really can’t be since the UK has already had its glass-ceiling-breaking PM), and while Blair is loathed in many Labour circles, Bill Clinton remains very popular among Democrats and maybe a third-to-a-half of Sanders’ supporters would be perfectly happy with HRC if she stays on her current “populist” tack.
So while Bernie Sanders is doing very well at present, let’s don’t get too caught up in the idea that an irresistible wave of lefty fervor is about to sweep across the Atlantic and catch Bernie up in the clouds. He’s going to have to earn every vote the hard way.