Sanders doubles down on democratic socialism as he takes aim at Trump

Sanders doubles down on democratic socialism as he takes aim at Trump
© Greg Nash

Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersSanders 'outraged' after MLB threatens to cut ties with minor league teams Booker leads other 2020 Dems in petition urging DNC to change debate qualifications Democrats threaten to skip next debate over labor dispute MORE (I-Vt.) delivered a forceful defense of democratic socialism on Wednesday, pitching his signature — and at times controversial — ideology as the ultimate counter to President TrumpDonald John TrumpRepublicans aim to avoid war with White House over impeachment strategy New York Times editorial board calls for Trump's impeachment Trump rips Michigan Rep. Dingell after Fox News appearance: 'Really pathetic!' MORE’s brand of nationalism. 

In an address that Sanders and his aides hope will be a watershed moment for his presidential campaign, the Vermont senator tore into Trump, accusing him of espousing a philosophy of “corporate socialism” and aligning himself with authoritarian leaders in Russia, Brazil and Saudi Arabia. 

“While President Trump and his fellow oligarchs attack us for our support of democratic socialism, they don’t really oppose all forms of socialism,” he said. “They may hate democratic socialism because it benefits working people, but they absolutely love corporate socialism that enriches Trump and other billionaires.” 

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The address at George Washington University came as Republicans rev up efforts to cast not just Sanders, but the Democratic presidential field at large, as propagating the same brand of socialism touted by authoritarian governments in Venezuela and elsewhere. 

Many Democrats have sought to distance themselves from the socialist moniker, including Sanders’s chief rival on the left, Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenTrump executive order aimed at combating anti-Semitism stirs up controversy Booker leads other 2020 Dems in petition urging DNC to change debate qualifications Democrats threaten to skip next debate over labor dispute MORE (D-Mass.), who is starting to gain ground in the polls and has repeatedly described herself as a capitalist while arguing for more stringent regulations to combat social and economic inequality. 

Sanders’s speech showcased not only his willingness to embrace the democratic socialist label, but his deep-seated belief that voters will ultimately be drawn to his call for political revolution. 

“He has to be able to confront how he’s going to address the attacks on democratic socialism, but also explain why he believes people will warm to his ideas when he’s up against Donald Trump,” Faiz Shakir, Sanders’s campaign manager, said. 

“He’s very comfortable in his philosophy. What you saw today was an effort to lean in — to explain what drives him, what motivates him.” 

At the same time, the speech appeared intended to punch back at criticism of his ideology. 

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He cast democratic socialism as the logical continuation of the sweeping social welfare policies that helped reshape swaths of America during the mid-20th century, reminding a friendly audience that critics frequently attacked President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal as socialist. 

“Today in the second decade of the 21st century we must take up the unfinished business of the New Deal and carry it to completion,” he said. “This is the unfinished business of the Democratic Party and the vision we must accomplish.”

Sanders acknowledged that he was all but guaranteed to face criticism for his embrace of democratic socialism. But those attacks are nothing new to him, he assured the audience.

“I do understand that I and other progressives will face massive attacks from those who attempt to use socialism as a slur,” he said. “But I should also tell you that I have faced and overcome these attacks for decades, and I am not the only one.” 

The speech bore much resemblance to an address by the Vermont senator in 2015, in which he sought to clarify his definition of democratic socialism amid unease from some voters, who saw the term as taboo. 

At the time, Sanders was a newcomer to presidential politics, whose policy proposals — a single-payer health care system and free public college education, among other things — were considered only on the fringes of the political left. 

But Sanders has since come to wield significant influence in Democratic circles since his first presidential bid in 2016. Another avowed democratic socialist, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-CortezAlexandria Ocasio-CortezDemocrats ask if they have reason to worry about UK result Sanders, Ocasio-Cortez to hold campaign rallies in Los Angeles, Las Vegas Overwhelming majority say social media companies have too much influence: poll MORE (D-N.Y.), was elected to the House last year. And several presidential hopefuls have embraced some form of a “Medicare for All” proposal and his call for a $15 minimum wage. 

There are also signs that views of socialism may be changing more broadly. 

A Gallup poll released last month showed that more than 4 in 10 Americans believe that some form of socialism in the United States would be a good thing, including more than half of respondents between the ages of 18 and 34 and more than two-thirds of Democrats. 

But that poll also underscored a clear generational divide. Only about 36 percent of Americans over the age of 55 said that socialism would be a good thing. 

Sanders’s speech on Wednesday came as some early primary and caucus state polls showed the senator’s standing in the primary contest slipping. 

A recent survey of likely Democratic caucusgoers in Iowa conducted for the Des Moines Register and CNN found Warren in a statistical tie with Sanders after a similar poll from March gave him a 16-point lead over the Massachusetts senator. And a Monmouth University poll released on Wednesday showed Warren pulling ahead of Sanders in Nevada, the third state to vote in the Democratic nominating contest.

One Democratic operative said that Sanders’s decision to refocus his campaign on democratic socialism was “inexplicable” given his lackluster support among Democratic partisans and older voters, many of whom still associate socialism with the Cold War and authoritarianism. 

The speech also underscored what the operative said may be an even deeper problem for the senator: Despite his spot among the top contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination, Sanders “has not advanced his argument beyond where he was in ’15 an ’16.” 

“There’s another problem that he has, and it’s that he’s still caught in the mindset of being a factional candidate instead of leading the party,” the operative said. “He always wants to fight the party.” 

Sanders’s aides say his address had nothing to do with the recent polling numbers and that the campaign had been planning the event for well over a month.

Shakir, the campaign manager, said that the speech was intended, in part, to correct the record on how Sanders’s brand of socialism is portrayed, not only by Republicans, but in the media. 

“I think too often we fall back on the label of socialism without understanding what we’re talking about,” Shakir said. “That doesn’t lend itself to a discussion of philosophy and what drives you.” 

“Bernie Sanders would have delivered this address if he were at 80 percent in the polls or 8 percent in the polls,” he continued. “He’s trying to reset the conversation.”

Updated at 4:50 p.m.