Trump divides Democrats with warning of creeping socialism

President TrumpDonald John TrumpBooker hits Biden's defense of remarks about segregationist senators: 'He's better than this' Booker hits Biden's defense of remarks about segregationist senators: 'He's better than this' Trump says Democrats are handing out subpoenas 'like they're cookies' 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 SchumerSenate confirms Trump judicial nominee criticized for being hostile to LGBT community Senate confirms Trump judicial nominee criticized for being hostile to LGBT community Democrats detail new strategy to pressure McConnell on election security bills MORE (N.Y.) and Sens. Debbie StabenowDeborah (Debbie) Ann Stabenow It's time to let Medicare to negotiate drug prices Trump judicial nominee says he withdrew over 'gross mischaracterizations' of record Trump judicial nominee says he withdrew over 'gross mischaracterizations' of record MORE (Mich.), Joe ManchinJoseph (Joe) ManchinCritics say Interior's top lawyer came 'close to perjury' during Hill testimony Critics say Interior's top lawyer came 'close to perjury' during Hill testimony The Hill's 12:30 Report — Presented by MAPRx — Trump takes heat for remarks on help from foreign governments MORE (W.Va.), Jon TesterJonathan (Jon) TesterVA chief pressed on efforts to prevent veteran suicides VA chief pressed on efforts to prevent veteran suicides Overnight Defense: US to send 1K more troops to Mideast amid Iran tensions | Iran threatens to break limit on uranium production in 10 days | US accuses Iran of 'nuclear blackmail' | Details on key defense bill amendments MORE (Mont.) and Sherrod BrownSherrod Campbell BrownFacebook's new cryptocurrency raises red flags for critics Facebook's new cryptocurrency raises red flags for critics Hillicon Valley: Senate sets hearing on Facebook's cryptocurrency plans | FTC reportedly investigating YouTube over children's privacy | GOP senator riles tech with bill targeting liability shield | FAA pushed to approve drone deliveries 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.

ADVERTISEMENT

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 SandersSanders denies tweet about corporate Democrats was dig at Warren Sanders denies tweet about corporate Democrats was dig at Warren Democrats asked to create ideal candidate to beat Trump pick white man: poll MORE (I-Vt.), who labels himself as a democratic socialist, stayed rooted in his seat, as did Sen. Cory BookerCory Anthony BookerBooker hits Biden's defense of remarks about segregationist senators: 'He's better than this' Booker hits Biden's defense of remarks about segregationist senators: 'He's better than this' Biden defends remarks about segregationist senators: 'Apologize for what?' MORE (D-N.J.).

Freshman Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-CortezAlexandria Ocasio-CortezChuck Todd: Ocasio-Cortez's concentration camp remarks do border detainees 'tremendous disservice' Chuck Todd: Ocasio-Cortez's concentration camp remarks do border detainees 'tremendous disservice' GOP hopes dim on reclaiming House 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 bristle as Hicks appears for daylong Capitol Hill testimony Democrats bristle as Hicks appears for daylong Capitol Hill testimony Trump: 'So sad' Democrats are putting Hope Hicks 'through hell' 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 Elizabeth GillibrandOvernight Defense: House passes T spending package with defense funds | Senate set to vote on blocking Saudi arms sales | UN nominee defends climate change record Overnight Defense: House passes T spending package with defense funds | Senate set to vote on blocking Saudi arms sales | UN nominee defends climate change record 'We fight on': 2020 Democrats mark Juneteenth MORE (N.Y.), Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisDemocrats asked to create ideal candidate to beat Trump pick white man: poll Democrats asked to create ideal candidate to beat Trump pick white man: poll Biden defends remarks about segregationist senators: 'Apologize for what?' MORE (Calif.) and Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenSanders denies tweet about corporate Democrats was dig at Warren Sanders denies tweet about corporate Democrats was dig at Warren Warren: 'On Juneteenth and every day: Black lives matter' 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: Trump officials defend changes to family planning program | Senators unveil bipartisan package on health costs | Democrats pass T spending bill with HHS funds Overnight Health Care: Trump officials defend changes to family planning program | Senators unveil bipartisan package on health costs | Democrats pass T spending bill with HHS funds Kushner meeting with senators to craft asylum deal 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 McConnellOvernight Defense: House passes T spending package with defense funds | Senate set to vote on blocking Saudi arms sales | UN nominee defends climate change record Overnight Defense: House passes T spending package with defense funds | Senate set to vote on blocking Saudi arms sales | UN nominee defends climate change record Senate to vote Thursday to block Trump's Saudi arms deal 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 HironoFemale senators hatch plan to 'shame' Senate into voting faster Female senators hatch plan to 'shame' Senate into voting faster Trump defense pick expected to face tense confirmation 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.”