KOLB: The Democrat Party’s Looming Identity Crisis

Photo by ROBYN BECK/AFP via Getty Images)

Charles Kolb Deputy Assistant to George H.W. Bush
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With the Iowa caucus results now (mostly) in, it’s clear that the Democrat Party faces a major identity crisis and choice: will it become the American version of the United Kingdom’s Labour Party under extreme left-winger (and current leader) Jeremy Corbyn, or will it pursue the more moderate, centrist, business-friendly, Third Way approach of former Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair?

This reference to the U.K. context in the midst of our 2020 presidential campaign is not an overreach. At issue are not only questions of policy and personality, but also ones of timing and direction. The parallels are worth noting.

In the mid-to-late 1970s, the British economy was a disaster: high taxes, high inflation, high interest rates, crippling labor unrest and a sinking currency. Two left-leaning, socialist Labour Prime Ministers, Harold Wilson and James Callaghan, held office from 1974 to 1979. They introduced wage and incomes policies that mostly worsened matters.

Meanwhile, a young Margaret Thatcher was steadily rising to power in the Conservative Party. She became Party leader in 1976 and Prime Minister in April 1979. As we know today, her rigorous prescription of free-market, deregulatory, and anti-Communist policies dramatically reversed the U.K.’s decline in ways that were unthinkable before her leadership.

Many Thatcher policies endure to this day, as her successors have retained much of her legacy.  The next Labour Prime Minister, Tony Blair (1997-2007), governed as a business-friendly triangulator, much the way Democrat Bill Clinton governed in the U.S.

Today’s Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, however, has dismissed Thatcherism and endorsed, or acquiesced in, policies that would reinstate socialism, reverse earlier privatizations, and, in the eyes of some, condone anti-Semitism. U.K. voters widely trounced Corbyn last December and gave Conservative Prime Minister Boris Johnson (a Churchill and Thatcher devotee) a landslide parliamentary majority.

The situation in the U.S. today resembles the late-seventies in the U.K., only in reverse.  Whereas Margaret Thatcher dragged the U.K. from socialism and collectivism to free-market competition and economic recovery, some leaders on the American left ignore today’s strong economic performance and, instead, espouse policies similar to what nearly doomed the U.K. in the pre-Thatcher years.

In the U.S. today, a strong economy and record low unemployment should be universally welcomed. Instead, a virulent, vocal strain of left-wing progressivism and avowed socialism has emerged among Democrats, primarily in reaction to the 2008 Great Recession, overhyped arguments about inequality, and President Trump’s neo-populist nativism that champions America first under his “Make America Great Again” mantra.  Against this backdrop of U.S. economic strength, these Democrats want to ignore history and reinstate collectivist policies that failed in the U.K. and elsewhere, such as Cuba, North Korea, Russia, and Venezuela.

The Democrats’ Jeremy Corbyns are Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.  The former is an avowed socialist; the latter claims to be a capitalist but favors massive federal-government enlargement.  The Democrats’ Tony Blairs are Joe Biden, Michael Bloomberg, and, perhaps, Pete Buttigieg.

With Iowa’s mixed results, where Buttigieg eked out a narrow win, followed by Sanders, Warren, and Biden, it’s evident that Democrat voters have yet to identify their next leader and their party’s overall direction.

Democrats would be wise to study the arc of U.K. history (and economic performance) that runs from Harold Wilson and Margaret Thatcher through Tony Blair, Jeremy Corbyn, and Boris Johnson.  They have a choice: as the party of the American left, will they follow Corbyn or Blair?

Thus far, the Democrat party has defined itself primarily in terms of its nonstop, strident opposition to Donald Trump.  Anti-Trumpism, however, will not be sufficient to win the White House this year.

With a booming economy, American voters are unlikely to reverse course and embrace socialism and its companion redistributive policies.  With Buttigieg largely untested, Sanders and Warren pandering to the party’s progressive left wing, and Biden performing poorly thus far, it’s anybody’s guess how today’s identity crisis will be resolved. But if the vocal progressives force a Corbyn-type leader on the Democrat Party, they can expect to lose this November.

Meanwhile, it might not be a bad thing for Donald Trump to spend some time studying Margaret Thatcher. She conveyed strength, determination, principled leadership, and empathy.  Along with Boris Johnson, she positioned her party to attract Labour Party moderates.  They both won big time.

The 2020 American presidential election looks like it will be a contest between those favoring more government-sponsored collectivism and those favoring more free-market competition.  We know where Trump stands. What about the Democrats?

Charles Kolb served as Deputy Assistant to the President for Domestic Policy from 1990-1992 in the George H.W. Bush White House