A fierce debate over socialism has erupted among Democrats, with several centrist presidential candidates warning that progressive proposals on health care and the environment that have dominated the primary are a surefire way to get President Trump reelected.
Three low-polling contenders — former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, Sen. Michael Bennet (Colo.) and former Rep. John Delaney (Md.) — are unloading on socialism or taking shots at “Medicare for All” and the Green New Deal, which have gone mainstream in the Democratic Party since being embraced by Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren(Mass.), as well as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.).
Hickenlooper and Delaney made waves with their warnings about socialism and Medicare for All at the California Democratic Party convention over the weekend in San Francisco, where they were booed mercilessly by the liberal crowd.
Now they’ve become targets for the party’s energized left wing, including Ocasio-Cortez, who encouraged Delaney to “sashay away” from the race after he said that Medicare for All would result in hospital bankruptcies and cost 150 million Americans access to health insurance.
But the centrists are doubling down and warning that a leftward lurch toward socialism could cost Democrats the White House in 2020.
“If we put socialism on the ballot in 2020, that sounds very risky to me,” Delaney said in a Monday phone interview with The Hill. “The lesson from 2018 is very clear. We flipped the House with moderate candidates. You can’t argue that point. The seats we flipped were with problem solvers, not with litmus test ideologues. We win when we put forth problem solvers who run in the center.”
Liberals are irate, arguing that no one running for the Democratic nomination, not even Sanders, a self-described democratic socialist, is proposing that the U.S. should abandon capitalism and become a socialist country.
Neil Sroka, the communications director for the liberal group Democracy for America, described the centrists as a “group of older white men who think this is their best path to relevance in the primary.”
“Their argument hinges on a Republican view of the world that anything that is not greed-soaked exploitative capitalism must then be totalitarian communism,” Sroka said. “That’s the binary choice Republicans have decided on and all these old, irrelevant white men are doing is bending to that way of thinking because they believe it’s a path to victory for their campaigns.”
Democrats are bracing to see how former Vice President Joe Biden reacts to the controversy, noting that the party’s presidential front-runner could ignite a vicious struggle between the progressive and establishment wings of the party if he sides with the centrists.
Biden has sought to cast himself as a progressive champion, but one with crossover appeal to mainstream voters, believing it makes him the most electable candidate in the Democratic field.
Biden was noticeably absent from San Francisco over the weekend, where progressives, such as Sanders and Warren, took shots at him as the “safe” choice whose centrist leanings are ill-suited for the times.
“Some Democrats in Washington believe the only changes we can get are tweaks and nudges. If they dream at all, they dream small,” Warren told the crowd of delegates. “The time for small ideas is over.”
Liberals have found Hickenlooper’s speech from that event particularly infuriating, with many viewing his remarks on socialism as an ad hominem attack that is irrelevant to the debate going on among the left.
Hickenlooper was booed for saying that “if we want to beat Donald Trump and achieve big progressive goals, socialism is not the answer.”
In an interview with The Hill directly following his speech, Hickenlooper went further, describing Medicare for All and the Green New Deal as “massive government expansions” that are adjacent to socialism and will turn off general election voters in key swing states.
“In places like Ohio and Michigan and North Carolina and Wisconsin, places we have to win to beat Trump, we’ll be starting out 10 yards behind,” Hickenlooper said.
Progressive activist Jonathan Tasini, who described Hickenlooper, Bennet and Delaney as the “white guys who belong to the dead-ender caucus,” said the centrist Democrats are making a bad-faith argument that plays into GOP talking points about socialism.
Republicans want nothing more than for Democrats to be debating whether their policies are socialist, Tasini said.
“It’s fair game for Bennet, Delaney or any dead-ender to challenge progressives on policy, and I’d welcome that because our positions have majority support among the people,” Tasini said. “And then there’s Hickenlooper, who should be ostracized after embracing Republican-Trump talking points to mudsling and engage in vile red-baiting, along the way creating an ad featuring him sure to run in the general election with the tagline ‘even Democrats know socialism has taken over their party.’ ”
Polling data finds broad support for Medicare for All, but “socialism” remains unpopular among a majority of voters.
A recent Gallup survey found that less than half of Americans polled would consider voting for a qualified presidential candidate if that person is a socialist.
However, a different Gallup survey from 2018 found that a majority of Democrats have a positive view of socialism for the first time ever. That phenomenon is largely driven by young liberals, who are more likely to have a favorable view of socialism.
Some mainstream Democrats are frustrated by these new dynamics, believing that the progressive wing refuses to compromise and wants to drum anyone who disagrees with them out of the party.
Delaney told The Hill that he and the progressive wing have the same goal of universal health care, but that he wants to preserve the option for Americans to purchase private insurance. After Ocasio-Cortez called on him to drop out of the race for criticizing Medicare for All, Delaney accused some on the left of trying to stifle debate.
“I’m worried that some folks in the Democratic Party are intolerant toward different views on this and don’t want a debate,” Delaney said. “That won’t serve us well ... and unfortunately not enough Democrats want to step forward and say what they know to be true.”
Several Democrats interviewed by The Hill said they’re fine with a policy debate, but take issue with the centrists’ use of the word “socialism” in close proximity to the progressives’ most ambitious policy proposals, saying it only serves to give political ammunition to Trump and the Republicans.
Said one prominent Democratic strategist: “If we have a general election debate over socialism, we lose.”