Britain’s Labour Party suffered its worst electoral defeat since 1935 in December, because it chose to be led by a far-left extremist.
Center-left Democrats in the United States worry their party is about to make the same mistake. Bernie Sanders, a self-described socialist from Vermont, won the most votes in the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary and now places first in national polls. (Although he has yet to get more than 26 percent support.)
James Carville, the architect of Bill Clinton’s 1992 election victory, warned Democrats this week: “if we nominate Jeremy Corbyn, it’s going to be the end of days.”
Andrew Sullivan, a British-born conservative commentator, believes a Republican campaign against Sanders would be brutal:
He’s a man … who sided with a Marxist-Leninist party that supported Ayatollah Khomeini during the hostage crisis in 1979. He loved the monstrous dictator Fidel Castro and took his 1988 honeymoon in the Soviet Union, no less, where he openly and publicly criticized his own country and praised many aspects of the Soviet system.
On the other hand, Sullivan points out Corbyn had a net favorability rating of -40. Sanders is only at -3. Most polls show him beating Donald Trump with between 2 and 8 points.
Corbyn and Sanders are not the same — but they are not completely dissimilar either. There are differences in policy, but worrying similarities in strategy.
A year ago, I cautioned American leftists against sympathizing with Corbyn, arguing that the British politician was far to the left of their man.
Sanders’ policies — universal health care, debt-free college, higher taxes on the rich, tougher regulation of business — would be considered mainstream left in Europe. (Which doesn’t mean they’re all good ideas. Some European countries that used to have something like Medicare-for-all have moved away from it.)
Corbyn, by contrast, ran on nationalizing utilities, including electricity and rail, transferring 10 percent of the shares in every big company to workers, free broadband Internet and child care, a higher minimum wage, an expansion in social housing, and a 65 percent increase in public spending to pay for it all. (Which might not even have been enough.)
Abroad, Corbyn sided with every anti-Western actor and regime, whether it was Hamas and Hezbollah in the Middle East, Evo Morales in Bolivia, Hugo Chávez and Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela, or Iran and Russia.
Sanders also denounced the military coup in Bolivia without mentioning Morales’ attempt to rig the election and serve an illegal fourth term as president.
But Sanders, who is Jewish, takes a more balanced view to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He calls Maduro a “tyrant” and is clear-eyed about Vladimir Putin.
Sanders’ views may not be as radical as Corbyn’s, but, like Corbyn, he doesn’t appear to have changed his mind on a major issue in his entire political career. Their fans admire this. I worry it betrays a fanaticism.
That’s borne out by another thing Corbyn and Sanders share: a refusal to shut up about issues that only matter to the (woke) left.
When Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar, two of Sanders’ center-left opponents in the nominating contest, used their victory speeches in New Hampshire to reach swing voters, Sanders spoke to his base, arguing that his campaign is not just about defeating Trump but “transforming” America.
He touted his support for abortion rights and opposition to the “military-industrial complex”, causes that are unlikely to endear him to voters in the middle.
David French, a conservative columnist, has called Sanders’ insistence that “being pro-choice is an absolutely essential part of being a Democrat” a missed opportunity.
Sanders could argue that under his program — free health care, free child care, higher wages, longer parental leave — abortions will continue to fall, as they have since the early 1980s. Instead, he is turning abortion rights into a litmus test, which could give the type of suburban voters who switched from the Republicans to the Democrats in 2016 and 2018 second thoughts.
A socialist talking about the “military-industrial complex” could similarly rub Republican-leaning voters the wrong way in states like Arizona, where Boeing manufactures its Apache helicopters; Georgia, which has a large Lockheed Martin plant; and Virginia, where many military contractors live. A Democrat probably needs to win at least two out of those three states to defeat Trump.
Corbyn’s acolytes in the UK argued that, while Labour lost the election, its policies were popular, and individually they were. But rather than run on bread-and-butter issues like nationalizing rail and raising the minimum wage, Corbyn turned the election into an ideological choice between “the many” and “the few”. Even some traditional Labour voters didn’t think he had his priorities straight. That’s what Sanders needs to avoid.