Trump divides Democrats with warning of creeping socialism

President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump's top adviser on Asia to serve as deputy national security adviser United Auto Workers strike against GM poised to head into eighth day Trump doubles down on call to investigate Biden after whistleblower complaint: 'That's the real story' MORE hadn’t had much success dividing Democrats until he found a word that would provoke very different responses from different members of the party during his State of the Union address: socialism. 

Trump’s warning of creeping socialism in the United States, deftly mentioned after a section of the speech on the unfolding political crisis in Venezuela, created an immediate public split among Democrats that was caught on live television.

Senate Democratic Leader Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerToomey on gun reform: 'Beto O'Rourke is not helping' Schumer, Pelosi push Trump to back universal background check bill Sinema says she would back Kennedy in race against Markey MORE (N.Y.) and Sens. Debbie StabenowDeborah (Debbie) Ann StabenowRepublicans to hand out 'baseball cards' mocking Gary Peters in Michigan Senate Democrats accuse administration of burying climate change reports Democrats seize Senate floor to protest gun inaction: 'Put up or shut up' MORE (Mich.), Joe ManchinJoseph (Joe) ManchinToomey on gun reform: 'Beto O'Rourke is not helping' Trump walks tightrope on gun control O'Rourke gun confiscation talk alarms Democrats MORE (W.Va.), Jon TesterJonathan (Jon) TesterDemocratic senators quietly hope Biden wins over rivals GOP Sen. Johnny Isakson to resign at end of year Native American advocates question 2020 Democrats' commitment MORE (Mont.) and Sherrod BrownSherrod Campbell BrownBipartisan housing finance reform on the road less taken Hillicon Valley: Google to promote original reporting | Senators demand answers from Amazon on worker treatment | Lawmakers weigh response to ransomware attacks Senate Democrats want answers on 'dangerous' Amazon delivery system MORE (Ohio) were among the lawmakers who stood with Republicans to applaud Trump when he pledged that the United States would never slide into socialism.

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But other Democrats weren’t so happy about Trump’s choice of words — which was clearly meant to put them on the spot.

Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersOmar: Biden not the candidate to 'tackle a lot of the systematic challenges that we have' Seven takeaways from a busy Democratic presidential campaign weekend in Iowa Democrats go all out to court young voters for 2020 MORE (I-Vt.), who labels himself as a democratic socialist, stayed rooted in his seat, as did Sen. Cory BookerCory Anthony BookerSeven takeaways from a busy Democratic presidential campaign weekend in Iowa Iowa GOP swipes at 2020 Democrats' meat positions as candidates attend annual Steak Fry Booker aide sounds alarm about campaign's funding MORE (D-N.J.).

Freshman Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-CortezAlexandria Ocasio-CortezOmar: Biden not the candidate to 'tackle a lot of the systematic challenges that we have' Ocasio-Cortez calls out Democrats for refusing to impeach Trump Ocasio-Cortez reveals new policies for campaign aides with children MORE (D-N.Y.), another leading democratic socialist, smiled in response to Trump's remark but stayed seated. 

She later argued that Trump's attack is a sign of her growing success.

“I think it was great. I think he’s scared," she told HuffPost. "He sees that everything is closing in on him. And he knows he’s losing the battle of public opinion when it comes to the actual substantive proposals that we’re advancing to the public."

The different reactions reflect a battle within the Democratic Party that Trump and Republicans are eager to exploit.

Progressive policies are on the rise within the party.

Sanders electrified liberals with his surprisingly strong challenge to former Secretary of State Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonDemocrats go all out to court young voters for 2020 Pelosi: Whistleblower complaint 'must be addressed immediately' Election meddling has become the new normal of US diplomacy MORE in the Democratic primary in 2016, and Ocasio-Cortez is the political star of the day.

Both candidates favor a single payer health care system that would provide “Medicare for all,” free college tuition and much higher marginal tax rates on the wealthy.

But some of the liberal policies make other Democrats uncomfortable — and that gave Trump’s attack line some teeth.

“I want proposals that work for people. I think it’s important to have people have skin in the game in health care so it isn’t all utilized. I think it’s important that people have skin in the game when they go to college,” Tester said, when asked about applauding Trump’s vow that the nation will never slide into socialism. 

At the same time, Tester acknowledged that middle-class families are paying too much for health care and to send their kids to college. 

“It’s all about finding the sweet spot that works for the country,” he said. 

Brown, one of the senators who stood with Tester, opposes Medicare for all and has argued in favor of more incremental policies that would expand health care.

He’s seen as a possible 2020 contender along with Booker, who is already in the race, and Sanders, who has yet to announce a decision.

The Sanders Medicare for All legislation, introduced in the previous Congress, attracted 16 Democratic co-sponsors, including several presidential candidates such as Booker, Sens. Kirsten GillibrandKirsten GillibrandNew Hampshire feels overlooked in Democratic presidential race Booker aide sounds alarm about campaign's funding O'Rourke gun confiscation talk alarms Democrats MORE (N.Y.), Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisSeven takeaways from a busy Democratic presidential campaign weekend in Iowa Fracking ban could have unintended consequence of boosting coal Poll: Voters back Medicare expansion, keeping private insurance MORE (Calif.) and Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenUnited Auto Workers strike against GM poised to head into eighth day Omar: Biden not the candidate to 'tackle a lot of the systematic challenges that we have' Seven takeaways from a busy Democratic presidential campaign weekend in Iowa MORE (Mass.). 

Harris made headlines in late January by calling for the elimination of private health insurance and the adoption of Medicare for all during a CNN town hall event — a step too far for other Democrats. 

Senate Democratic Whip Dick DurbinRichard (Dick) Joseph DurbinOvernight Health Care — Presented by Partnership for America's Health Care Future — Walmart to stop selling e-cigarettes | Senators press FDA to pull most e-cigarettes immediately | House panel tees up e-cig hearing for next week Hillicon Valley: Lawmakers say Zuckerberg to 'cooperate' on antitrust probes | Dems see victory after McConnell backs election security funds | Twitter takes down fake pro-Saudi accounts Bipartisan group of senators urges FDA to pull most e-cigarettes immediately MORE (Ill.) cautioned that private health insurance is “a massive part of the American economy” and “it would take a mighty transition” to move away from it.

Durbin noted, however, that he and many Democrats support a “Medicare-type plan, a not-for-profit public plan that is available to everyone” such as the so-called public option that was proposed as a competitor to private health plans when the Senate debated the Affordable Care Act in 2009. 

Republicans have seized on Trump’s arguments to attack Democrats.

“Socialism has failed everywhere it’s been tried and we’re not going to try it in this country,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellToomey on gun reform: 'Beto O'Rourke is not helping' Election meddling has become the new normal of US diplomacy DC statehood push faces long odds despite record support MORE (R-Ky.) said on the Senate floor this week. 

But Durbin warned that Trump and McConnell are using a dangerous tactic 

“Every authoritarian regime of the last century has prefaced their grab for power by saying you’ve got to stop the left. Sometimes they call it socialist, sometimes they call it communist,” he said.

Durbin said Trump’s line at the State of the Union was “part of President Trump’s script and it troubles me.” 

Sen. Doug Jones (D), who faces a tough reelection in Alabama next year, also stood up to applaud Trump’s rejection of socialism. 

“I think it’s true. It’s a true statement, it’s not going to happen. It’s that simple, nobody wants it to happen,” he said of Trump’s pledge that the nation will never become socialist. 

Jones dismissed Ocasio-Cortez’s proposal to tax the nation’s very highest income earners at 70 percent of their top-bracket income. 

“There’s a lot of talk about things like that. I think we need to look at practical issues when it comes to tax and things like that and I’m not sure how practical that is,” he said. 

A poll from The Hill found that 59 percent of respondents backed a 70 percent marginal rate on income above $10 million, underlining support for some of the liberal policies that make some Democratic centrists uncomfortable.

Harris, asked on “The View” about Ocasio-Cortez’s ideas, including a 70 percent tax rate, said, “I think that she is challenging the status quo, I think that’s fantastic.”

Booker in an interview praised the Green New Deal, another proposal pushed by Ocasio-Cortez.

It states that the federal government’s duty is to achieve “net-zero” greenhouse gas emissions, create “millions of good, high-wage jobs” and invest in infrastructure and industry to “sustainably” meet the challenges of the new century. 

“There are a lot of people out there pushing back against the Green New Deal, saying it is impractical, it is too expensive, it is all of this. If we used to govern our dreams that way, we would have never gone to the moon. God, that's impractical,” Booker said. 

Sen. Mazie HironoMazie Keiko HironoDemocratic senators introduce bill to block Trump 'public charge' rule Overnight Health Care: Juul's lobbying efforts fall short as Trump moves to ban flavored e-cigarettes | Facebook removes fact check from anti-abortion video after criticism | Poll: Most Democrats want presidential candidate who would build on ObamaCare Lawmakers urge DNC to name Asian American debate moderator MORE (D-Hawaii), who did not stand up to validate Trump’s applause line, says that “socialism” isn’t a bad word if it means providing people access to affordable health care and a comfortable living.  

She said Medicare could be considered “socialized medicine.” 

“If it’s socialism to want to have a progressive tax code that doesn’t just give the richest people more goodies, if it’s socialism to want health care as a right and not a privilege, then that’s where our country should be heading,” she said. 

But she argued “all this labeling and trying to put people in little boxes” is a scare tactic.

“It’s really what you do that helps the majority of our people” that is important, she said.  

Some polling shows that Americans are warming up to the idea of socialism, at least compared to a decade ago.

A Gallup poll published in August showed that 57 percent of Democratic respondents said they viewed socialism positively while 47 percent viewed capitalism positively. 

When Gallup asked the question in 2010, 53 percent of polled Democrats said they had a positive view of socialism and 53 percent said they had a positive view of capitalism.  

More than one in four Democrats, 26 percent, now say socialism means “equal standing for everybody, all equal in all rights, equal in distribution,” according to Gallup polling results published in October. 

When Gallup last asked people about their understanding of the word socialism in 1949, only 12 percent of people viewed the term as synonymous with equality while 34 percent viewed it more negatively as “everything controlled by government.”