Diversity of ancestry, the Washington Post laments today, does not equal diversity of thought. Democrats have the former by the bucketload in the 2020 presidential primaries, even after Bernie Sanders helpfully filled in the “old white dude” slot on the scorecard yesterday. The Post’s Sean Sullivan and Annie Linskey points out that while the contenders are “diverse by race and gender,” they are mostly also pursuing the progressive-populist vote on the far left.
How do Democrats avoid the “socialist squeeze,” they wonder. Are they walking into Donald Trump’s trap?
The increasingly large 2020 Democratic presidential field is fighting two simultaneous battles: a chaotic intraparty primary struggle over how far left to push their policies and a broader question of how to confront the challenge posed by President Trump, who has already begun casting the Democrats as socialists.
The dynamic has put a squeeze on the Democratic candidates as they begin to lay out their messages. They are being pressed from one side by core Democratic voters hungry for leftist policies favored by the most energized activists and, from the other, by the need to court centrist voters who could be alienated by the party’s turn to the left.
Trump’s opportunity to define the Democratic field could be long-lasting: The president will have more than a year to portray the opposing party as radical before a Democratic nominee is selected.
The Democratic candidates’ squeeze could tighten further after Tuesday’s presidential announcement by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). The entrance of Sanders, a democratic socialist and the leading champion of Medicare-for-all, could intensify the Republican criticisms and the pressure on his rivals to be more vocal advocates of single-payer health care, one of a host of social programs increasingly popular on the left.
Perhaps the trap has already been set. Trump certainly seemed stoked this morning to have Sanders back in the presidential sweepstakes:
Crazy Bernie has just entered the race. I wish him well!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 20, 2019
Socialist Bernie, Mr. President. Socialist Bernie. It’s all about branding, right? On the other hand, Trump was hardly alone welcoming Sanders to the race. Donors poured money into his campaign coffers … again:
Bernie Sanders’s 24 hour haul: 223,047 individuals gave $5,925,771.
— Shane Goldmacher (@ShaneGoldmacher) February 20, 2019
Ironically, socialism sells. It’s the hot new capitalist product! That’s what has driven supposedly mainstream Democrats to embrace most or all of Sanders’ agenda. He brought in prodigious amounts of grassroots cash in 2016, the only funds available for him after Hillary Clinton locked up almost all of the institutional Democratic donors ahead of the 2016 primaries, and he did it by selling unvarnished socialism. The other Democrats want to siphon off that cash flow for their own purposes, especially early in the cycle.
That’s not to say that some Democrats aren’t sending up warning signals too. Unfortunately, the signals are coming from the second tier at best. Here’s former Rep. John Delaney cheering for capitalism and reform and telling CNN that socialism isn’t “what the American people want.” He hopes, anyway:
"If we want to win, if we want to beat Trump, we should not put up a candidate who embraces socialism," 2020 Democratic candidate John Delaney says. "That's not what the American people want." https://t.co/gtqK3nnuvj pic.twitter.com/HH9Nrs7klW
— CNN (@CNN) February 20, 2019
Republicans might act with glee over the leftward lurch of the opposition, but this is a dangerous game. People on the Right like to talk about Overton window shifting when it comes to immigration, but there’s a much better chance of it happening in the opposite direction when it comes to socialism. The entertainment and media establishment certainly like putting a glamorous gloss on an economic-political system that produces authoritarianism and despair even when dressed up as “democratic socialism” (as we see in Venezuela).
Sure, this kind of talk might cost them the election in 2020, although Democrats start off with a significant advantage. But the real socialists might bet that Trump would do so much damage in a second term that voters will buy any kind of alternative in 2024. Or maybe, just maybe, they think voters are that desperate already. If this is a trap, it might end up backfiring on the US.