When Democrats unveiled their “Green New Deal” to fight climate change, the Republican response was swift and strikingly uniform.
“A socialist wish list,” said a spokesman for the national party.
“The socialist Democrats are off to a great start!” exclaimed a spokesman for the GOP’s congressional campaign committee.
“Socialism may begin with the best of intentions, but it always ends with the Gestapo,” chimed in Republican Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas, invoking Winston Churchill.
The echo was no accident. Rather, it marked a purposeful shift in rhetoric and political strategy as President Trump and his party increasingly focus on his reelection and wield the S-word, socialism, as their preferred weapon.
The president faces an uphill battle — his poll numbers are some of the worst in history and he just faced a drubbing in November’s midterm election. One way to boost Trump’s prospects is to shift the focus from his turbulent tenure to his eventual opponent and his frightful portrayal of that alternative.
The effort began with his State of the Union speech. “We are born free, and we will stay free. Tonight, we renew our resolve that America will never be a socialist country,” he said, in what has quickly become a campaign staple.
It is both an old and new tactic.
The president’s political rise has been replete with dark and scary imagery and perceived threats of his own making. Marauding street gangs. Rapists, drug dealers, murderers spilling across the country’s border with Mexico. By invoking a socialist threat, he summons — at least for those of a certain age — the whiff of Red Menace, bread lines and an assault on democracy and the country’s foundational free-enterprise system.
“It’s the sense of something foreign, something un-American,” said Stephanie Mudge, a UC Davis sociologist and author of a book on left-of-center politics in the U.S. and abroad.
It also divides Democrats in a way emotional issues such as immigration, abortion and gun control generally do not.
For many younger Americans — saddled with college debt, struggling to find an affordable place to live — socialism has a more benign connotation, promising a fairer distribution of wealth and greater economic opportunity. A Gallup Poll in August found that 51% of Americans between the ages of 19 and 29 had a positive view of socialism, compared with 45% in that age group who viewed capitalism in a favorable light.
“They don’t have the legacy of the Cold War and that narrative about the West, freedom and capitalism versus the Soviet Union and authoritarian communism,” said Maria Svart, national director of the Democratic Socialists of America and, at age 38, a millennial voter.
She welcomes a debate over socialism as a chance to discuss social justice and economic inequality and ways to achieve both. “It’s absolutely the moment to shine,” Svart said. “The more people that hear our message, the better.”
That is not, however, a view that is widely shared, even among Democrats.
Peter Hart cited a September NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll he conducted that overall found strongly positive sentiments toward capitalism and negative views of socialism — attitudes, he said, that could undermine support for popular Democratic positions like expanding healthcare coverage and fighting climate change if Trump manages to define the terms of the debate.
“Simply put, no one wants to run on labels,” said Hart, a veteran Democratic Party strategist. “What they want to run on are programs, ideas and directions for the country.… If the label is ‘capitalism vs socialism,’ capitalism wins and socialism loses.”
The center of gravity within the Democratic Party has unarguably shifted leftward in recent years; polls show that Democrats have a much more favorable view of socialism than the rest of the electorate. Support for universal healthcare, higher hourly wages, increased taxes on billionaires and greater government oversight of the economy have all become standard orthodoxy among the party’s leading White House contenders.
But the consensus quickly breaks down when the question is how best to achieve those goals.
Republicans would like to make the democratic socialists Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez avatars of the Democratic Party. But not every Democrat echoes the Vermont senator, whose 2016 economic populist campaign helped push the party left, or embraces the environmentalist “Green New Deal” unveiled to great fanfare by the freshman New York representative.
“I know that the easy thing to do is say, ‘Yes, yes, yes,’” Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio, who is weighing a White House bid, said of the expansive and costly blueprint to fight global warming. But, he said, “I don’t need to cosponsor every bill that others think they need to cosponsor to show my progressive politics.”
Mindful of the divide within their party, Democratic presidential hopefuls have tread a careful path.
“Look, I believe in capitalism,” Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren said on Bloomberg TV when asked whether socialism — an economic system in which the production and distribution of goods are substantially controlled by the government — is the best path to follow.
“But let’s be really clear,” she continued. “Capitalism without rules is theft.… What I believe is capitalism with serious rules and that means everybody gets a chance to play.”
Pete Buttigieg, the 37-year-old mayor of South Bend, Ind., kept himself at arm’s length even as he suggested the S-word has lost its political punch.
“You can no longer simply kill off a line of discussion about a policy by saying it’s socialist,” he said on CNN. “If someone my age or younger is weighing a policy idea and somebody comes along and says, ‘You can’t do that; it’s socialist,’ I think our answer is going to be, ‘OK, is it a good idea or is it not?’”
The fact, though, that the question is even being asked of candidates speaks to one of the great advantages Trump enjoys as president: the power to shape the 2020 campaign agenda and frame the debate.
Though he lost the popular vote, Trump has made precious little effort since 2016 to win converts. Some advisors believe the president’s style is so polarizing that he stands little chance of success, even if he tried. So they say his best chance of winning reelection is to repeat what he did last time: demonizing his opponent — whoever he or she turns out to be — to rally support and frighten off any voters who may be uncertain or leaning the other way.
“Elections, at the end of the day, are choices,” said Raj Shah, a former White House spokesman working for Trump’s reelection campaign. He rejected the notion that the president is trying to distract from his performance by using scare tactics.
“He can run on his accomplishments,” Shah said, “and also contrast that with the vision and positions of his opponents.”