Bernie Sanders Defends ‘Socialism’ Amid Republican Attacks

Bernie Sanders is venturing into territory avoided by all the other Democratic presidential hopefuls by embracing the “socialist” label that President Donald Trump is trying to tag on the entire field of candidates.

In a speech in Washington on Wednesday afternoon, the Vermont senator will defend what he calls democratic socialism and make a case that it’s the only path to ending “authoritarianism” and oligarchy. He will also argue that now that the U.S. has guaranteed civil rights for all, the next step is economic rights, including guaranteed health care coverage, a clean environment and the right to “as much education as one needs to succeed in our society.”

“We must recognize that in the 21st century, in the wealthiest country in the history of the world, economic rights are human rights,” he will say, according to excerpts provided by his campaign. “This is what I mean by democratic socialism.”

The address at George Washington University is an attempt by Sanders to stand apart in race with 23 candidates, and to argue that many of the proposals and causes he’s championed for years are now mainstream and increasingly popular. Yet his embrace of the socialism label further attaches him to an ideology “with a lot of baggage” and plays into a Republican attack line, said Zac Petkanas, a Democratic strategist who isn’t affiliated with any of the Democratic campaigns.

“A lot of his policies are popular with the American people if they don’t come under the ‘socialism’ banner,” Petkanas said. “To lean into that label has risks in the general election and may not have the benefits he thinks it does in the primary.”

Standing Apart

Sanders is delivering his defense of socialism as he continues to trail former Vice President Joe Biden in national polls and voter surveys in early primary states. He’s also attempting to draw a distinction with Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, his biggest competitor in the contest for the loyalty of the party’s left wing who has been gaining on Sanders in recent weeks.

A self-described democratic socialist and progressive, Sanders is campaigning on curbing economic inequality in the U.S. He’s calling for a host of government interventions, including higher taxes on the wealthy, free college tuition, Medicare for All, and stricter consumer and environmental protections.

Republicans have intensified attacks on him and the other Democratic candidates. Trump has warned that the U.S. risks falling into the chaos that abounds in Venezuela if a Democrat takes the White House. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, makes frequent reference to the “socialist” tendencies of 2020 Democratic contenders and forced a vote on the Democrats’ Green New Deal climate-change outline in an effort to corner the seven senators vying for the Democratic nod.

McConnell, in a radio interview on Tuesday with the conservative commentator Hugh Hewitt, accused the Democrats of peddling “full-scale socialism.”

“They want to turn us into sort of a Western European socialist country,” he said. “Remember what Margaret Thatcher said about socialism. She said ‘the problem with socialism is pretty soon you run out of other people’s money.’ That’s where they are and that’s why we need to beat them next year.”

Old Recordings

Sanders also has been confronted with news reports revisiting his 10-day honeymoon in the Soviet Union in 1988, when as a just-married mayor of Burlington, Vermont, he was captured on camera at a table filled with vodka bottles and told Soviet hosts he wanted to “take the strengths of both systems” of government and “learn from each other.”

The trip came up in his unsuccessful run for the Democratic nomination in 2016, but the video threatens to be used against him if he were to be the nominee in 2020.

Polls show the public is split on socialism, although Democrats are more open to it and a candidate who embraces it.

A recent Monmouth University poll found that 57% of adult Americans said socialism wasn’t compatible with American values, and just 29% said that it was. At the same time, the April 11 to 15 poll also found that just 42% have a negative view of socialism in general, while 45% had a neutral opinion and 10% had a positive view of socialism.

Not surprisingly, the poll found that Democratic voters were more favorable to socialism than Republicans or independent voters, with just 32% of Democrats saying it wasn’t compatible with American values and 50% saying it was.

In his speech on Wednesday, Sanders will suggest that his 2020 agenda is an extension of former President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal that aimed to stabilize the economy and provide jobs and relief during the Great Depression of the 1930s.

Roosevelt Comparison

“Over eighty years ago, Franklin Delano Roosevelt helped create a government that made huge progress in protecting the needs of working families,” he says in the excerpts. “Today in the second decade of the 21st century we must take up the unfinished business of the New Deal and carry it to completion. This is the unfinished business of the Democratic Party and the vision we must accomplish.”

Among the Democratic candidates running for the 2020 nomination, only Sanders calls himself a socialist. Warren has rejected the term, saying she embraces capitalism with rules to protect the working class.

While campaigning in Iowa last weekend, Warren laughed when she was told Sanders would argue the only way to address authoritarianism and oligarchy is democratic socialism.

“I haven’t heard the speech yet, if that makes sense to you that that’s the only way,” she told reporters. “I’ll have to hear the speech.”

Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, another Democratic contender, said in an interview she rejects the label, favoring a free-market system that has improved “checks and balances” like better anti-trust enforcement.

“We are the Democratic party and my own belief is that our nation is strong when we have an economy that works for everyone, and that means not stifling entrepreneurship,” she said.

A number of Senate Democrats said Sanders is free to detail his own views on the matter, but some of the more moderate Democrats in the chamber had little to say. Senator Doug Jones, an Alabama Democrat who is the top target of Senate Republicans in 2020, said only that “I am not a socialist” when asked about Sanders’s planned remarks.

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