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Politics

No, Democrats shouldn’t panic over Britain’s election results, but they should pay attention

Essential Politics
(Los Angeles Times)

The moment the first exit polls came out in Britain, a flood of takes began to pour onto social media in the U.S.: Conservative Party leader Boris Johnson was heading for a landslide victory, they said, and that was bad news for Democrats — and one Democratic socialist in particular.

The first part, the landslide election, certainly proved true: Johnson won the biggest Conservative victory since Margaret Thatcher‘s third term in 1987. For the Labor Party, the defeat was catastrophic — the party lost parliamentary seats in working-class areas of northern England and Wales that it had held continuously since the 1930s. Much blame fell on the party’s left-wing leader, Jeremy Corbyn.

But what of the other part? Does Britain’s election say anything about prospects for President Trump, who openly rooted for Johnson, or for Sen. Bernie Sanders, whose supporters sometimes used to compare him to Corbyn — a metaphor they now likely regret?

LIVE BY THE ANALOGY, DIE BY THE ANALOGY

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Start with the obvious: The U.S. and U.K. are different countries, with different political systems, issues and personalities.

But the politics of the two sometimes echo each other. Thatcher’s first election in May 1979 certainly inspired some of President Reagan‘s advisors as he sought the presidency a year later. In the mid-1990s, President Clinton and Labor Prime Minister Tony Blair not only traded ideas, but they also shared the same pollster.

Trump sees a connection, too. He fancies himself knowledgeable about British politics, likes to claim he publicly predicted a victory for Brexit in the 2016 referendum (he didn’t) and has long touted Johnson.

In the midst of impeachment, he’ll no doubt draw reassurance from Johnson’s win. That could be the wrong lesson.

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Johnson’s campaign had two main points: “Get Brexit done” was one. “Corbyn would be a disaster” was the other. The Conservatives effectively portrayed Corbyn as an extremist and a fumbler. His inability to repudiate anti-Semitism in the Labor Party tainted Corbyn further.

Trump has made clear he will try to portray the Democratic nominee in a similar light. He’s spent the last several months laying the groundwork to declare his opponent — whoever it is — as a socialist, an enemy of Israel and a captive of what he calls the “radical left.”

So far, however, the 2020 election is shaping up the way U.S. reelection campaigns typically do -- a referendum on the incumbent, not the challenger.

The latest poll from the key swing state of Wisconsin underscored that reality. The poll, released Thursday, gave respondents hypothetical matchups between Trump and five possible Democratic candidates: Sanders, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Joe Biden, Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Sen. Cory Booker. The result? Almost identical tossups regardless of the Democrat. What was driving the results was voters’ approval or disapproval of Trump.

That pretty well describes the nature of the challenge for both sides. With the country enjoying the lowest unemployment rate in decades, the incumbent president should be a sure bet for reelection. But because Trump is who he is, he can’t be sure of anything. Wisconsin, a state that Trump pretty much must win, remains in play because he is so broadly unpopular, and there’s no issue currently on the horizon big enough to take the focus off him.

What, though, of the potential impact of the British results on Democratic primary voters?

Before Corbyn’s name became an epithet of defeat — that is to say until Thursday morning — some writers on the left liked to analogize Corbyn and Sanders. Both, they said, would prove that political leaders willing to boldly, clearly denounce corporate power could mobilize millions of young people, change the nature of the electorate and lead a political revolution.

In Britain, that approach failed catastrophically, and when it did, Sanders’ allies quickly went into defensive mode.

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“Must not allow Labour Party loss to be read as warning to Progressive Dems, their popular issues and Election 2020,” Katrina vanden Heuvel, the publisher of the Nation magazine, wrote Thursday night on Twitter.

She and others on the Democratic left have a strong point: Not only do the issues in Britain and the U.S. differ hugely, Corbyn was deeply unpopular in Britain, viewed negatively by upward of 60% of the country, which is not true of any of the leading Democrats. No rational person should try to draw direct analogies between elections in different countries.

But politics is never entirely rational.

Long before Britain’s election campaign even started, one of the highest hurdles for Sanders — and to a lesser extent Warren — was the belief among many Democratic activists that they would lose to Trump.

Polls by YouGov, for example, have consistently shown fewer than half of Democratic voters nationally saying that they believe Sanders would beat Trump if he were the nominee.

By contrast, about two-thirds of Democratic voters think Biden would probably beat Trump. That belief about his electability has been one of Biden’s consistent strengths throughout the primary season.

As that Wisconsin poll showed — and others have shown, as well — the state-by-state evidence so far casts doubt on the idea that one Democrat is clearly stronger against Trump than another. But voters don’t seem to believe that. In our most recent Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies poll of California voters, for example, Biden came out on top on the question of which candidate had the best shot at beating Trump, even though most of the poll respondents preferred Sanders or Warren as the nominee.

The majority of primary voters, of course, aren’t paying attention to British elections. But party activists — the sort who have an outsized impact on primaries — tend to be people who pay a lot of attention to political news. Corbyn’s huge defeat, fairly or not, will deepen the anxiety among many of them that nominating either of the leading progressive candidates would open the way for Trump’s reelection.

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How much impact that anxiety has will depend on the ability of the progressive candidates to answer the doubts about whether they can win. When the top Democratic candidates meet again for a debate next week, expect to see that as a major topic. Electability is already a question on voters’ minds. The British results should add to its urgency.

IMPEACHMENT DRAWS A STEP CLOSER

The House Judiciary Committee’s party-line vote Friday morning to approve a two-count impeachment resolution against Trump opens the way for a final vote in the House sometime next week — most likely Wednesday, although the schedule remains very much in flux.

The committee proceedings have been contentious and intensely partisan, as Sarah Wire, Chris Megerian and Jennifer Haberkorn have chronicled.

What happens when the trial hits the Senate? Trump has wanted a full-on spectacular, with the ability to call Hunter Biden and leading Democrats as witnesses. But, as Noah Bierman and Haberkorn wrote, Senate Republicans have been resisting the idea of a lengthy trial.

Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who ultimately will make the decision, has sent strong signals that he wants to keep the proceedings short, perhaps with no live witnesses at all, although he would like to avoid a fight with Trump on the subject.

House members, meanwhile, are jockeying to see who gets to prosecute the case in the Senate, as Haberkorn and Wire reported. It’s a high-profile assignment that several Californians would like to have. Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam B. Schiff of Burbank, Judiciary Committee member Zoe Lofgren of San Jose and Rep. Eric Swalwell of Dublin, who sits on both committees, are all among the possibilities.

In the Clinton impeachment, House Republicans named 13 members to serve as managers of the impeachment case, as the post is known. Speaker Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco is expected to name a smaller number, although she’s also expected to have a big enough panel to reflect the diversity of the Democratic membership.

As Megerian and Wire reported, Russia is nowhere and everywhere in the impeachment saga. The country is never explicitly mentioned in the impeachment resolution, but its actions suffuse the case. And as Molly O’Toole reported, some $20 million of military aid involved in the impeachment case still hasn’t reached Ukraine.

CONGRESS ENDING THE YEAR WITH SOME WORK

Pelosi has been eager to show that the House can still legislate even in the midst of the impeachment fight. Earlier this week, she announced that House Democrats had reached a deal with the White House and with Mexico on amendments to the proposed update of NAFTA, the trade agreement among the U.S., Canada and Mexico, as Don Lee, Eli Stokols and Patrick McDonnell reported.

In another trade development, Trump agreed to delay new tariffs on China. The White House is touting the deal as a major step, as Stokols and Lee reported, but Trump’s past statements about deals with China have often turned out to be false. The Chinese so far are releasing few details, Alice Su reported from Beijing.

The House is expected to approve the NAFTA update next week, and the Senate plans to take it up in January. Some Senate Republicans object that the White House gave up too much and that the resulting deal tilts too far in the direction of organized labor. In the end, however, with Trump and Pelosi both backing it, the agreement, which Trump has redubbed USMCA, is all but certain to pass.

Democrats didn’t get as much in a defense spending measure as they did in the trade agreement.

As Anna Phillips reported, the defense bill, which awaits final passage in the Senate, would halt military use of toxic foam contaminating drinking water but doesn’t include other provisions to deal with the cleanup of the waste. It does provide for 12 weeks of paid family leave for all federal workers, which was a priority for Democrats, and gives Trump the independent Space Force he wanted.

The two sides have also agreed on a spending bill to avoid a government shutdown. Both houses plan to vote on that next week before quitting for a Christmas break.

ON THE CAMPAIGN TRAIL

Sanders’ supporters have sometime angrily complained about a #Bernieblackout, saying he doesn’t get enough coverage in the mainstream media. But as Evan Halper reported, Sanders has ridden a surge of exposure in alternative media, making him less dependent on traditional outlets.

One of the leading figures in that alternative media world is Cenk Uygur, host of “The Young Turks,” who is now running for Congress in the seat left open by the resignation of Rep. Katie Hill. As Michael Finnegan reported, Sanders endorsed him Thursday, despite a history of controversial comments by Uygur, including defending crude sex ratings of women.

As Bierman reported, Warren revised her income disclosure from a controversial coal case.

And as Janet Hook reported, Warren is trying to regain altitude for a campaign that has sputtered lately.

LOGISTICS

That wraps up this week. Until next time, keep track of all the developments in national politics and the Trump administration on our Politics page and on Twitter @latimespolitics.

Send your comments, suggestions and news tips to politics@latimes.com.

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david.lauter@latimes.com


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