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12 May 2021updated 22 Jul 2021 5:52am

Tony Blair: “no sensible Democrat or democrat should overplay the Biden victory”

The former UK prime minister has a warning for US progressives.

By Emily Tamkin

“The Biden victory was a heavy reaction not so much against the policies as the comportment of Trump,” writes former British prime minister Tony Blair in this week’s issue of the New Statesman.

Joe Biden, Blair argues, won the 2020 US election because of his “self-evident reasonableness and moderation”, and perhaps would not have done so if centre-ground voters had not considered Trump “uniquely strange and unacceptable in his behaviour”.

The statement from Blair, who was prime minister between 1997 and 2007 and led the Labour Party to three consecutive general election victories, is not an uncontroversial one for Americans. 

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Biden did quite clearly pitch himself as the moderate candidate in the Democratic primary. Throughout the election he appealed to decency and promised a return to a new and improved normalcy (hence the slogan “build back better”). 

On the other hand, there will be some – particularly on the US left – who reject the idea that Trump’s failure during the Covid-19 pandemic was one of behaviour. The former president’s personality surely influenced his policies, but it was the policies – or lack thereof – that left Americans feeling abandoned during a once-in-a-century pandemic. His handling of coronavirus hit a record low approval rating in the weeks before election day last year. 

Blair also writes that Biden’s “obvious competence in an area [the pandemic] where partisan politics is regarded as stupid serves him well”, but adds that beyond that domain, “the Democrats may struggle, especially on cultural issues. America remains a deeply divided country.”

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This is undoubtedly true. A majority of Republicans do not believe that Biden legitimately won the election; Tucker Carlson has subsequently appeared on Fox News talking about the war on beef; Republican-controlled states are passing laws that would make it harder for trans children to get through the school day and for black Americans to vote. 

Blair’s warning, therefore, that the Republicans could easily give Democrats a run for their money – if not in the presidency, then in the House and Senate – should be heeded, particularly given what a narrow majority Democrats have in the legislative chambers.

It’s also worth keeping in mind, though, that Trump won in 2016 when he focused (albeit with racist, nativist rhetoric) on remembering those who had been forgotten by globalisation and politicians in Washington. He then lost the House in the 2018 midterms, which he tried to make about migration, and lost the 2020 presidential election, which he tried to make about a series of cultural grievances. Biden, meanwhile, promised stimulus cheques and won. Progressives are not the only ones who can find themselves ensnared in culture wars. 

Perhaps what is ultimately most surprising to an American is the line, “… leave to one side Joe Biden, and around today’s Western world there are only flickers of a progressive agenda with deep majority support”. 

Many Americans were not quite sure what they expected from candidate Biden, but it was likely not for him to become a major progressive player in the Western world. And yet, Tony Blair tells us, here we are. 

[See also: Tony Blair: without total change Labour will die]