The Memo: Bernie Sanders’s WH launch sharpens ‘socialist’ question

Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersVolatile presidential polls spark new round of anxieties GOP memo deflects some gun questions to 'violence from the left' British Bookmaker: Warren has replaced Biden as Democratic primary favorite MORE (I-Vt.) was barely out of the starting gate in his presidential bid Tuesday when President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump watching 'very closely' as Portland braces for dueling protests WaPo calls Trump admin 'another threat' to endangered species Are Democrats turning Trump-like? MORE’s reelection campaign blasted him as a socialist.

But there are serious questions as to how effective such attacks will be, given that polling indicates a broadening popularity for ideas that were once on the left fringes of American politics.

Fifty-four percent — a clear majority — of adults nationwide who were surveyed for a CNN–SSRS poll conducted in late January and early February support a government-provided national health insurance program. An even higher percentage — 59 percent of the registered voters polled in a mid-January The Hill–HarrisX survey — favored increasing the highest income tax rate to 70 percent. A Reuters–IPSOS poll last summer indicated that 60 percent of respondents — including 41 percent of Republicans — supported a tax on speculative trading to provide free college tuition for those who meet certain income levels.

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Then there are the particular dynamics within the Democratic Party. 

A Gallup poll last summer showed 57 percent of Democratic respondents have a positive view of socialism, as against only 47 percent who have a positive view of capitalism.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-CortezAlexandria Ocasio-CortezOcasio-Cortez brushes off Trump tweet claiming she is 'fuming' over Tlaib, Omar attention Trump finds consistent foil in 'Squad' The Hill's Morning Report — Trump and the new Israel-'squad' controversy MORE (D-N.Y.), a former organizer for Sanders who shares his self-identification as a democratic socialist, has taken the party by storm since defeating then-Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-N.Y.) in a primary last June. To activists on the left, it is a sign that the zeitgeist has shifted in their favor — and that politicians such as Sanders should no longer be considered unelectable on a national scale.

“The New Deal was ‘socialist,’ Social Security was ‘socialist,’ Medicare was ‘socialist,’ President Obama’s health care reform was ‘socialist,’ ” said Waleed Shahid, the communications director of the Justice Democrats, a group founded by former Sanders staffers. “Given that decades-long fear-mongering about socialism  — and especially the way Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaForget conventional wisdom — Bernie Sanders is electable 2020 Democrats fight to claim Obama's mantle on health care Obama shares summer reading list MORE had that label put on him — I just don’t think voters are going to be very responsive to that kind of message.”

Another Democratic strategist, who requested anonymity to speak candidly, said even Sanders’s unflinching democratic socialism “is a very American vision of the role of government. Its antecedents are in the ideas of Franklin Roosevelt, not Karl Marx.”

Be that as it may, Republicans can barely suppress their glee about the launch of Sanders’s candidacy, seeing in it a chance not only to hit the veteran Vermonter but also to paint the Democratic Party more broadly as beyond the pale.

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“Run, Bernie, Run!” Matt Gorman, the former communications director of the National Republican Congressional Committee, said with a laugh. “Not only does he get to the left of the Democratic candidates in a primary, but he also really motivates Republicans in a huge way. And he pulls the entire [Democratic] field to the left.”

The statement from the Trump 2020 campaign responding to Sanders’s launch asserted that he had already had a major impact on the Democratic Party ever since he challenged eventual nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonAre Democrats turning Trump-like? The Hill's Campaign Report: Battle for Senate begins to take shape The Hill's Morning Report — Trump and the new Israel-'squad' controversy MORE more strongly than expected in 2016. 

“Bernie Sanders has already won the debate in the Democrat primary, because every candidate is embracing his brand of socialism,” the statement, from Trump 2020 national press secretary Kayleigh McEnany, said. “But the American people will reject an agenda of sky-high tax rates, government-run health care and coddling dictators like those in Venezuela. Only President Trump will keep America free, prosperous and safe.”

The debates within the Democratic Party on the issue of ideological positioning are already powerful.

Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisAre Democrats turning Trump-like? Volatile presidential polls spark new round of anxieties Conservative commentator rips Shapiro over criticism of people with multiple jobs MORE (D-Calif.) stated during a campaign trip to New Hampshire on Monday, “I am not a democratic socialist.”

Harris was, however, the first Democratic senator to announce she would co-sponsor Sanders’s “Medicare for all” bill in summer 2017. In an interview with Kasie Hunt of NBC News, Harris denied that the idea was a socialist one. “No, no. It’s about providing health care to all people,” she said.

Sen. Amy KlobucharAmy Jean KlobucharPoll: Nearly 4 in 5 say they will consider candidates' stances on cybersecurity The Hill's Campaign Report: Battle for Senate begins to take shape Native American advocates question 2020 Democrats' commitment MORE (D-Minn.), a more centrist 2020 candidate, stated plainly that she was not in favor of “free four-year college for all” during a CNN town hall event on Monday evening.

Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenAre Democrats turning Trump-like? Manufacturing shrinks, raising questions for Trump Volatile presidential polls spark new round of anxieties MORE (D-Mass.), meanwhile, is seen as competing with Sanders for progressive votes, but she does so without labeling herself as a democratic socialist.

Some party insiders are also eager to separate out attitudes to progressive policies from attitudes to Sanders himself. 

Sanders is still the subject of considerable enmity in some Democratic circles because of his campaign against Clinton in 2016, which many strategists argue hurt her in the general election against Trump.

“I don’t remember another candidate who comes with as much opposition as Bernie does,” said Simon Rosenberg, the president of NDN, a center-left group.

“There are an awful lot of Democrats who are not supporting Bernie, and the opposition to him will be apparent, and will become obvious in the coming days,” Rosenberg added. “Up to this point, the primary has been pretty good-natured, and I think that is all going to change.”

Rosenberg also insisted that the shift of the party to the left had been exaggerated. He noted that there were a number of more centrist candidates who won seats in Congress in last November’s midterm elections.

Referring to the two most recent Democratic presidents, Rosenberg added: “Obama and [Bill] Clinton were far more pragmatists than ideologues. 

“One of the things that I think people are missing is that if Democrats are looking for an alternative to Trump, then one clear alternative is being not so ideological, more pragmatic, and being willing to work with people on both sides to get things done.”

Trump himself was a good deal milder about Sanders than some Republicans. 

“Personally I think he missed his time … but I like Bernie,” Trump told reporters in the Oval Office Tuesday.

Such politeness would likely go out the window if Sanders were to become the Democratic nominee — but even the primary itself will reveal plenty about where America stands on socialism.

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.