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What Joe Biden can learn from Keir Starmer

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It might be useful to begin with a restatement of Ganesh’s Law. All actors in politics value “radicalism” apart from those who decide elections. Commentators demand it. Activists grow restless and mutinous without it. Politicians themselves aspire to it, so that even their most cautious policies are framed as bold. When economic growth is strong, the time is said to be right for risk-taking. When it isn’t, well, all the more need for big ideas to get things going.

The honourable work of incremental reform, of not making things worse, doesn’t get its due, except from swing voters. As long as I have been alive, no opposition has lost a UK general election for not deviating enough from the status quo.

Sir Keir Starmer proposes fewer such deviations than some would like. Joe Biden has run the most radical Democratic administration since Lyndon Johnson’s, with a mandate more like Bill Clinton’s. One man is on course to become UK prime minister at the first attempt, in what, given his starting point, would rank among the outstanding electoral feats in the west this millennium. The second is struggling to keep an unpopular Donald Trump from the White House.

And so Democrats should invert the custom of Labour politicians visiting them in Washington for advice. The parties face different contexts — a rampant economy and a stagnant one, a demagogic opponent and a mild Tory, four years of incumbency and 14 years of opposition — but both face electoral reckonings in 2024. Labour is so much likelier to win as to demand studying.

The main lesson? For swing voters, a leader who disappoints their own party is bold. Holding the line against internal dissent is proof of vision and virility. When Starmer drops a commitment to spend an annual £28bn on the green transition and declines to reopen the question of Brexit, politicos suspect a faint heart. The public sees someone answering one of the central questions about an aspiring national leader: is he or she the master of their party, or the creature of it? To judge by his slowness to disown a parliamentary candidate in Rochdale over anti-Israel remarks, he has further to go.

Biden has hardly addressed the master-creature question. Democrats entertain all sorts of explanations for his low ratings — an inadequate White House spin operation is a favourite — except that he has given them too much. Leave aside the empirical question of whether his giant spending bills implicate him in the post-2020 surge of inflation. Never mind, either, whether his loosening of some Trump-era rules on immigration exacerbated the problems at the southern border. Just consider how these gestures look to the undecided, non-partisan voter. Outside of foreign affairs, where his support for Israel upsets a generation of progressives, there are few cases of President Biden displeasing liberal Democrats. (Unlike Senator Biden, who did it all the time.)

What is that median American meant to conclude about Biden? Either this career-long centrist underwent a late conversion to the left or, given his age, others are setting the course of this administration. Criticism of the president’s mental and physical condition wouldn’t work so well, I think, if he ran a middle-of-the-road government. Its power comes from the idea that he is the unwitting instrument of forces that are more progressive than Americans would ever elect on their own terms.

Democrats misinterpreted the 2020 election as a directive to transform America. The brief — dispose of Trump — was narrower than that. Starmer seems to understand the spirit of the age better. If the defining thing about the popular mood across the west is mistrust of the governing class, that hardly implies much demand for or confidence in grand reform projects. This is all the more true in Britain, which is still recovering from the radicalism of leaving a colossal single market on its doorstep, and from the radicalism of attempting unfunded tax cuts at a time of high public debt. But it holds in most places.

It is to Starmer’s eternal advantage that he isn’t steeped in politics. He didn’t hold elected office until his fifties. He isn’t a fixture of the salons. In the run-up to the 1997 election, Labour’s last entry into government from opposition, much of the politico-media world in London felt part of the moment. That isn’t true now: a reflection of a much sourer national mood, of course, but also of Starmer’s detachment. He foots a price for this. Those to whom politics matters a lot underrate him. But what he gains can’t be bought or learnt. He is able to see politics as a swing voter might: as a problem-solving exercise, a necessary evil, not a source of entertainment and even meaning in one’s life.

janan.ganesh@ft.com

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