‘Resurgent, radical’ center faces political head winds worldwide

Tom Brenner/Reuters
U.S. President Joe Biden delivers remarks on the South Lawn of the White House, July 4, 2022. He made promises in 2020 for bipartisanship but is under pressure from both Republicans and Democrats.
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Tony Blair made his name in British politics as the father of “third way” politics, steering between the extremes. And he is still hewing to that path.

Last week he headlined a conference in London on the need for compromise and cooperation, and for hard policy spadework to put those values into practice, if centrist leaders are to claw back voters from ideologues and populists.

Why We Wrote This

Pragmatic cooperation is currently out of political fashion even in the oldest of democracies; but without it, governments will struggle to address the key challenges of our time.

That’s a message with relevance to the United States, Europe, and Israel, just for starters. In all those places, gladiatorial partisan politics are corroding democracies just when the issues that governments are facing are too complex and too fraught to be resolved by slogans.

The outlook is not bright. U.S. President Joe Biden is struggling to make his bipartisan approach stick in the United States; French President Emmanuel Macron has lost his parliamentary majority and will have to fight for legislation bill by bill; British opposition leader Keir Starmer, an ally of Mr. Blair’s, has lacked the opportunity to develop a policy agenda; and in Israel, a varied ruling coalition has just lost its majority in parliament.

They may all be in trouble, but that does not mean that the principles they stand for are not essential to dealing with the long-term threats that democracies face.

It was hard to escape the impression of an aging rock star returning for one last gig – appropriate, in a way, since the headline act, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, was something of a wannabe guitarist in his youth.

But the conference Mr. Blair convened in London last week was about politics, not pop music.

Once the poster boy for “third way” politics, steering between the extremes, he is arguing that there is a renewed need for those in the center ground of politics to claw back voter affection from populists and ideologues on both left and right.

Why We Wrote This

Pragmatic cooperation is currently out of political fashion even in the oldest of democracies; but without it, governments will struggle to address the key challenges of our time.

His message is rooted in a mix of political values – notably cooperation and compromise – and a hard-nosed acceptance of the policy spadework it will take to put those values into practice.

And it’s a message relevant to the future of democratic governance in Britain and beyond: most urgently in the United States, but also in European countries and in America’s major Middle East ally, Israel.

In all of these places, gladiatorial partisan politics are corroding democracies at a time when the issues governments are facing are too complex, and too politically fraught, to be resolved by any one side’s slogans, rhetorical flourishes, or easy promises. That will require developing and implementing new, forward-looking policies equal to those challenges.

Will that happen? The current political climate suggests it’s a long shot.

Christophe Petit Tesson/AP
French President Emmanuel Macron and Prime Minister Élisabeth Borne arrive for the first Cabinet meeting with new ministers at the Élysée Palace in Paris, July 4, 2022. Mr. Macron rearranged his Cabinet following legislative elections in which his centrist alliance failed to win a majority in Parliament.

But the struggle is underway, and it is reaching a decisive point in a number of democracies – perhaps nowhere as dramatically as in the United States.

President Joe Biden took office determined to achieve what Mr. Blair is urging, after four years of ideologically charged rule by Donald Trump which had magnified America’s divisions.

Mr. Biden vowed a bipartisan effort to tackle big issues affecting the lives of all Americans: rebounding from the pandemic, fixing a creaking national infrastructure, tackling climate change by building a greener economy, addressing inequalities in employment, health, and social care.

Yet he’s been stymied. He’s under pressure from both sides: from a Republican party still dominated by Mr. Trump, and from Democratic politicians on the left who dismiss his efforts at coalition-building as weak and naive.

In Europe, Mr. Blair’s bid for what he calls a “resurgent, radical” center also faces headwinds.

Not because of problems building coalitions, which is far less controversial in European countries than in hyperpartisan America.

The tougher task will be agreeing to a detailed policy vision to avert the long-term threats to a stable and sustainable future.

French President Emmanuel Macron, for example, will likely find immediate political imperatives getting in the way of that. A centrist, he won reelection earlier this year, but he no longer has an absolute majority in parliament, which means his government will have to rely on left-wing and right-wing foes, on a law-by-law basis, to get legislation passed.

In Britain, with Conservative leader Boris Johnson finally resigning and reduced to  caretaker status until his disgruntled party chooses a successor in the fall, the leader of the Labour Party, Keir Starmer, shares Mr. Blair’s view that he is still going to need to attract disenchanted Conservatives if Labour is to win the next election.

Jessica Taylor/UK Parliament/AP
Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaks in the House of Commons in London, July 6, 2022, a day when he maintained a tenuous hold on his job as a number of ministers in his government ended their support and resigned.

But his immediate priority has been to restore his party’s credibility. He has had no time to work on the kind of policy agenda Mr. Blair envisages: building a new relationship with Europe in the wake of Brexit; investing in nuclear-power stations and other measures to build a green economy; expanding the use of technology and AI to modernize an overstretched national health service.

Still, the most telling test of whether a centrist rebound is realistic may be Israel.

There, in a break from years of angry stalemate under Trump-allied Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a new ruling coalition took power a year ago.

Its chief architect was center-left leader Yair Lapid. But he included a smaller, far-right party, and agreed that its leader, Naftali Bennett, would be prime minister for the first two years. And for the first time in Israel’s history, it included a party representing Arab Israelis, who make up some 20% of the country’s population.

The government’s first achievement was to survive Mr. Netanyahu’s attacks as a haven for “terrorists.” But it also passed a state budget for the first time in several years. It began addressing underinvestment in Israel’s Arab communities. And it demonstrated that Israelis of very different backgrounds and ideologies could work together in common cause.

But it has now lost its wafer thin parliamentary majority. Mr. Lapid has replaced Mr. Bennett as caretaker prime minister and called new elections for November.

Mr. Netanyahu is set on winning back power, and polls suggest he may well succeed. Mr. Lapid’s hope will be to convince voters that the compromise and cooperation his coalition embodied were much more than just an improvement on familiar zero-sum political bickering.

In fact, Mr. Lapid needs to make it clear, they are nothing less than essential to addressing the long-term challenges that his and other democracies face.

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