Tony Blair Says Joe Biden Must Offer More Than 'Back to Normal' to Defeat Trump: 'You've Got to Recast Politics Completely'

The Democratic Party can only retake the White House by refashioning American politics—starting from the center and reaching out to those who handed power to President Donald Trump—according to former British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Former Vice President Joe Biden has emerged as the front runner for the Democratic 2020 nomination in recent weeks. He followed up his strong Super Tuesday showing with wins in Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri and Idaho this week to push out ahead of progressive rival Sen. Bernie Sanders.

His campaign will have to unify the Democratic Party, appeal to independents and peel away the voters who backed Trump in 2016 if Biden wants to become the 46th commander in chief. One of the most successful moderate leaders in modern history, Blair believes he knows how Biden can succeed.

Alongside President Bill Clinton, Blair drove the so-called "Third Way" brand of social democracy that attempted to fuse center and right-wing economic policy with center and left-wing social policy. For a while, it worked—Blair remains the most successful Labour Party prime minister in history and the only one to win the party three consecutive general election victories during his 10 years at the helm.

But Blair has been long been maligned by the left-wing of his own party, who were angered by his shifting the party away from its socialist foundations to a pro-market ideology, plus his disastrous foreign interventions alongside President George W. Bush. For many, "Blairite" has become an insult, used to berate those seen to be betraying Labour's socialist bedrock.

The years since Blair have been unkind to Labour, out of power for 10 years and losing the last three elections. The most recent race crushed the party—which until April will still be led by leftist firebrand Jeremy Corbyn—and handed Prime Minister Boris Johnson's Conservative Party its best electoral result since 1987.

Blair maintains that the road to electoral success begins in the center. "I believe a moderate version of a traditional left agenda will do better than a very left version of it," he told Newsweek in an interview at his central London office. In the U.S., Biden now seems the best placed person to create it.

"If I was in the USA now, obviously I'd be supporting him," Blair said of Biden, who he described as a "very capable and experienced guy."

Much of Biden's popularity stems from his two terms as vice president to President Barack Obama, who Biden has constantly invoked during his campaign. "He's right to say the type of spirit with which Obama approached things is a good spirit," Blair said.

But he added that a "back to normal" approach will not be enough to win. "The biggest challenge will be to show that you have the capacity to generate momentum for the change that people want," Blair explained, something he believes Biden can achieve "very easily."

"You mustn't provide people with a choice between a radical politics that's wrongheaded and an alternative politics which is 'steady as she goes.' That's not what it's about today...You've got to recast politics completely."

A new agenda must be combined with a "unifying message," Blair said, one that transcends social divisions. "Don't get drawn into a culture war," he warned. "If you get drawn into culture war you're going to lose for sure." The right will promote nationalist, anti-immigration and anti-political correctness sentiment, "and you'll be constantly on the defensive on all of those things," Blair explained.

Now is the time to prioritize bipartisan practical solutions over ideological point-scoring—an issue of supply rather than demand, Blair suggested.

"It's about recognizing we're living in a world of change, recognizing there are deep seated problems that need to be tackled but tackling them in a way that is modern and future-oriented, and that people think is practical and sensible. If you provide that, they'll back it."

Tony Blair, Joe Biden, 2020, Donald Trump
This file photo shows former British Prime Minister Tony Blair in central London, U.K. on July 17, 2018. TOLGA AKMEN/AFP via Getty Images/Getty

Blair has previously warned that the left cannot reclaim power via populism. The former prime minister has also voiced concerns over Trump's conduct, though in the U.K. is still criticized for aligning himself too closely with Bush's hawkish right-wing neo-conservatism.

In the days after Labour's humbling defeat last year, many U.S. journalists, talking heads and lawmakers warned that the American left should take heed—right-wing populism and nationalism could not be toppled by a radical left offering.

The British and American electorates, political systems and history are all different. But Blair said the rhetoric on the left and the package it is offering are similar in both countries.

Calls for "revolution" and "huge change" imbue both parties, Blair explained—abolition of college fees, higher taxes for the wealthiest, foreign policy that casts the West as the problem more often than the solution—"the parallels are obviously there."

This familiar manifesto "ended in a disastrous defeat" for the British left, Blair said. "In the end, people thought we were—both in economic and indeed in cultural terms—just divorced from the mainstream."

There are similarities between the British and American electorates, Blair argued, noting that the vote for Brexit appears to have been driven by similar forces to those that put Trump in the White House. He added that Americans are, if anything, more conservative than Brits in the voting booth.

Still, "Bernie Sanders isn't Jeremy Corbyn," Blair said, "Sanders is much more capable and has built a very impressive grassroots movement."

Too many leftists are trying to go back in time, he argued. Rather than harking back to the 1960s and 1970s, liberals and progressives worldwide need to embrace the opportunities of the 21st century.

"The radical change that you will bring about today is really how you harness the technological revolution for the future of the country," Blair said. "And the single biggest thing in my view that progressives and liberals should be talking about today is that technology revolution, its opportunities, its challenges and how we deal with them."

"This technological revolution is a fact, it's going to happen," he continued. Now it is up to lawmakers to make sure all members of society have a stake in it, especially those threatened, whether by AI, automation and other advances. "If it's actually going to happen, you don't help those communities by telling them you can protect them against something you can't protect them against."

Blair compared the next technological revolution to globalization. "You should be understanding it, accessing its opportunities, doing everything you can to help people through it and making it as just as possible."

The former prime minister still supports globalization, even though it has become a rallying point for anti-establishment parties from both the left and right given its role in widening wealth inequality, undermining traditional industries and exacerbating environmental degradation.

Blair noted that globalization has propelled global economic progress is an incredibly hard force to stop. "In the end, it's driven by people, not by governments."

This includes migration, Blair added. "Any sensible view on migration says that any country that wants to be successful in the world today has got to attract people who are capable people who come in from outside and they provide new energy and innovation and vitality to your own society. That's perfectly compatible with saying, 'Yes, but we need to make sure it's done lawfully.'"

Joe Biden, Donald Trump, 2020 election, Blair
This file photo shows former Vice President Joe Biden—front runner for the Democratic presidential nomination—addressing the media and supporters next to wife Jill Biden on March 10, 2020 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Mark Makela/Getty Images/Getty

Whatever policies they decide on, Blair said left-wing parties must offer something "radical but realistic." He added, "Part of the problem progressive politics is it is always wavering between becoming a glorified protest movement and a party of government."

Blair cited climate change as an area where progressives are overshooting, though noted it presents an "enormous opportunity" if they can get the balance right. If not, it could become the next weapon "in the right's culture war," for example Trump claiming that the Green New Deal would eliminate cows. "It could become a dividing line with the right that we'll probably end up losing from," he added.

Ultimately, Blair argued that the left has to understand why right-wing populism works. Leftists must ignore their "self righteous outrage" at those who voted for Trump or Brexit and instead "put ourselves in their shoes."

This won't necessarily include "the people who get up and shout, 'Lock her up' at the rallies," Blair said, but will be "people that I've met in Middle America—perfectly reasonable people, perfectly rational people—and they've decided to vote Republican with Donald Trump as the candidate."

"Obviously there will be some people you can't reach and won't want to reach," he continued. "But the question is to try and find a way of speaking to people who have been on the other side from you."

"There are answers to all of these things, but they require an attitude that says: 'I am not going to put a populism of the left against the populism of the right. I'm instead going to triumph over that populism of the right by reaching out.' That's obviously the way we can do it."

Tony Blair Says Joe Biden Must Offer More Than 'Back to Normal' to Defeat Trump: 'You've Got to Recast Politics Completely'