Sanders, socialism emerge as top targets at CPAC

NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — Democratic presidential front-runner Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) is emerging as the top target for conservatives at this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), with speakers and attendees hitting him for his progressive platform and democratic socialist label. 

With the theme “America vs. Socialism,” the conference sought to paint the entire Democratic presidential field with the socialist label, but cast Sanders as the ringleader.

“Today’s Democratic Party has been taken over by radical leftists who want higher taxes, open borders and late-term abortion,” Vice President Pence said during his address on Thursday. “[T]here are no moderates in this Democratic field. Every other one of the Democrats running for president embraces Bernie’s democratic socialism.”   

Sanders was notably the only Democratic presidential candidate Pence mentioned by name.

Speakers at the conference seized upon Sanders’s self-identification as a democratic socialist as they sought to paint his policies as extreme and out of step with what’s best for Americans.

“Look at what Bernie Sanders and others on the Democratic side are talking about,” House Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) said in a speech to a crowd gathered at the conference. “When they say Medicare for All, which in their plan, they take away government insurance that 180 million Americans enjoy.” 

Lawmakers at the conference also jumped on Sanders’s recent comments praising literacy programs put into place in Cuba under Fidel Castro’s regime. The remarks, made during a “60 Minutes” interview last weekend, have drawn widespread condemnation from Republicans and some Democrats.

“Bernie Sanders, the other night when he’s talking about Cuba, the warm Soviet Union, he’s talking about their wonderful education system,” Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), a close Trump ally, said. “What do we have to brag about, that those that live in Cuba can experience oppression and spell it too? We have got to figure out a way to call it out.”

The pile on comes as Sanders solidifies his status as the Democratic primary field’s front-runner. The Vermont senator has established a delegate lead and is enjoying a surge of momentum after a close second-place finish in the Iowa caucuses, a narrow victory in the New Hampshire primary and a resounding win in the Nevada caucuses on the back of a diverse coalition.

Moderate Democrats have raised concerns over the possibility of Sanders winning the nomination. They worry his progressive stances could make him unelectable against President Trump and have negative implications for down-ballot Democrats in competitive districts.

Some Republican candidates have already sought to tie their Democratic opponents to Sanders and cast them as sympathetic to socialism, a theme that resonated throughout the conference as well. 

However, despite optimism among conservatives that Trump could beat Sanders in a general election, they are not taking the prospect of Sanders leading the Democratic ticket for granted. 

“I think we should be careful,” American Conservative Union Chairman Matt Schlapp said in an interview with The Hill, referring to whether it will be easy for Trump to beat Sanders. “I think it could be a tough race, no matter who they nominate.” 

The Hill reached out to the Sanders campaign for comment on this story.

Attendees at CPAC admitted that while they disagree with virtually all of Sanders’s policies, they recognize he has successfully consolidated support among a vocal progressive base.

“I will say with Bernie, the one thing he does have that none of the other candidates have is a strong base. You look at Trump, he’s got this base of supporters that is really unmovable. This helped him through impeachment, helped him win the Republican establishment in 2016,” said Jacob Palmieri, a Trump supporter and senior at the University of Maine. “Bernie, we don’t agree with him on anything, but he has that same thing.”

Even Trump has recognized Sanders’s potency, saying the senator has much stronger support than centrists in the primary field like former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg.

“Frankly, I’d rather run against Bloomberg than Bernie Sanders, because Sanders has real followers,” Trump told reporters earlier this month. “Whether you like them or not, whether you agree with them or not, I happen to think it’s terrible what he says. But he has followers.”

Nevertheless, the GOP faithful at CPAC said Sanders’s progressiveness would ultimately fail to flip the White House should he be the Democratic presidential nominee, saying the country is not ready for his brand of democratic socialism.

“Mr. Trump’s going to win anyway, but it’ll be a rout,” Steve Rosamilia, who works in the technology sector in New York City, said of a possible Trump-Sanders clash. “America is not ready for a socialist government.”

Tags Bernie Sanders Donald Trump Mark Meadows Michael Bloomberg Steve Scalise

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