‘Most of our friends think Democrats are a bunch of freeloaders. We’re not…’
(Todd J. Gillman, The Dallas Morning News) Democrats bristle, but Republicans have successfully framed the 2020 election as a struggle against socialism — an ideology that no Democratic contenders say they advocate, despite their outward actions and policy advocacy.
President Donald Trump set the table in his State of the Union speech when he declared that “America will never be a socialist country.” He has reiterated the warning over and over since then, most recently Saturday, when he set off thunderous applause at a major conservative gathering by depicting a push toward “total domination” by government.
“Socialism is not about the environment. Socialism is not about justice. Socialism is about only one thing, it’s called power for the ruling class. Look at what’s happening in Venezuela,” he said at the Conservative Political Action Conference. “The future does not belong to those who believe in socialism.”
Democrats call the comparison ridiculous and inflammatory. Embracing a more expansive social safety net, they say, is fundamentally different from the autocratic socialism practiced in Cuba, Venezuela or the former Soviet Union — ignoring how oppressive socialism always starts.
In Texas last year, 11-term U. S. Rep. Pete Sessions tarred challenger Colin Allred as a socialist, but to no avail. Allred handily unseated him, 52 to 46 percent.
And Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, slapped the label on Beto O’Rourke, who may soon join the Democratic presidential field. O’Rourke pushed back then, and again last month when Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., declared his candidacy for president Feb. 19, triggering another round of Republican warnings about creeping socialism.
Sanders and another self-described democratic socialist, freshman Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., are driving much of the energy on the left, and Trump and other Republicans have invoked the specter of socialism to animate the president’s base.
Only about 1in 5 voters profess in opinion polls any fondness for socialism. So it’s a potent line of attack that puts Democrats on the defensive, forcing them to explain the difference between mainstream Democratic views, the more aggressive stances of Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez, and the despotic and economically ruinous systems in places like Cuba and Venezuela.
“I’m a capitalist,” O’Rourke said in El Paso the day after Sanders announced his campaign. “I don’t see how we’re able to meet any of the fundamental challenges that we have as a country without, in part, harnessing the power of the market.”
Rank-and-file Democrats decry the way Republicans apparently confuse “socialism” with enthusiasm for the social safety net and a desire to rebalance the tax code so the wealthy and corporations pay more.
On that side of the ideological divide, such judgment calls fall within a traditional range of policy options within the American system of democracy and capitalism.
“I’ve never seen Bernie as a socialist,” Brenda Klauer, 55, a special education aide, said at a recent rally in Bettendorf, Iowa, with Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., who began her campaign for president Jan. 21. Cheaper college? Health care for all? These, to Klauer, are not socialism, though she recognizes that Republicans may see it differently.
“It works well for their base. Most of our friends think Democrats are a bunch of freeloaders. We’re not,” she said.
Moments later, reporters gathered around Harris. The first question focused on whether her push to expand health care amounted to socialism.
“First of all,” Harris said, “I am not a socialist.”
She’s hardly the only Democratic contender regularly facing such questions, given the drumbeat from Trump and his allies.
“The Republican line of attack is to call everyone, including you, a socialist,” one Iowan told Julian Castro, a former San Antonio mayor and housing secretary in President Barack Obama’s second term, at a recent campaign stop in Denison, Texas. “They’ve talked about how we want to take away their cows and their airplanes and their cars. We all laugh at that but … how do you combat the charges?”
That referred to the Green New Deal, the plan championed by Ocasio-Cortez aimed at mitigating climate change by encouraging a shift from fossil fuels. Trump’s chief economic adviser, Larry Kudlow, calls it “central planning on a grand scale” and a prime example of the Democrat’s drive toward socialism.
Castro defended that and other policies the right raises alarms over, including taxes that require a “fair share” from wealthy people and corporations.
“They’ll call people socialist, even though socialism means the state controlling the means of production. Nobody in this race is calling for the state to control the means of production, and nobody’s actually embracing socialism,” Castro said.
“You know, these folks are going to name-call. They’re going to try and use their scare tactics,” Castro said, but making higher education and good health care affordable — “This is not something that’s radical.”
Stumping with farmers the next day in Polk City, Iowa, Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado, who led the Democrats’ Senate campaign arm in the 2014 elections, conceded that some Democratic ideas give Republicans an opening to attack. He cited the “Medicare for all” approach that would drive millions away from private insurance, noting that he has pushed instead to create a public option.
“The president is … trying to disqualify Democrats by calling them socialists,” Bennet said. “We should … be strategic and not make it easier.” Even so, he said, “none of the health care policies proposed by Democrats is socialism.”
Iowa farmer Les Tesdell, like many Democrats, rejects the epithet.
“It’s a bunch of BS,” he said. “They love to throw that word around. What they’re trying to do is tie people to how socialist regimes around the world that have been dictatorships. That’s a different thing. What the democratic socialists in this country are saying is, we need to take care of our own people.”
A glance at polls shows why Republicans want to expose the Democrats’ socialism as the main bogeyman in the 2020 election.
Just 18 percent of Americans view socialism positively, according to an NBC/Wall St. Journal Poll released Sunday.
At the same time, nearly two-thirds of voters said they believe the Democratic Party supports socialism, according to a Harvard/Harris poll released last week. And more than half of all voters 24 and under say they support a “mostly socialist” model; for them, the Cold War is ancient history.
Ronna McDaniel, chair of the Republican National Committee, said at the CPAC conference in Oxon Hill, Md., Saturday: “The Democrats are giving us a lot of gifts right now but … we can’t think that the American people understand what socialism is. We do have to go out and educate.”
In Venezuela, she said, “people are eating dog food to survive.”
One speaker after another tarred Democrats with the label.
Vice President Mike Pence warned Friday that “Bernie’s (Sanders) been joined by a chorus of candidates and newly elected officials who have papered over the failed policies of socialism with bumper sticker slogans and slick social media campaigns.”
At a CNN town hall on Feb. 25, Sanders rejected the idea that a $15-an-hour minimum wage or free college leads to Venezuela-style economic malaise and despotism.
“What democratic socialism means to me is having in a civilized society with the understanding that we can make sure that all of our people live in security and in dignity,” he said. “If I am elected president, we will have a nation in which all people will have health care as a right, whether Trump likes it or not.”
©2019 The Dallas Morning News. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC. Liberty Headlines editor Paul Chesser contributed.