Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Kamala D. Harris (Calif.) is shown at a campaign event on Monday in Portsmouth, N.H. (Elise Amendola/AP)
Opinion writer

The Democrats running for president are beginning a meaty, substantive debate on how to address the most pressing problems the country faces, including climate change and reforming the health-care system.

President Trump, on the other hand, would like to use his bully pulpit to throw a cloak of deception and distraction over that debate, to paint Democrats in the worst possible light and, in the process, make sure voters are as ill-informed as possible.

And some in the news media seem eager to abet Trump in his effort.

In the best of circumstances, presidential campaigns can offer an extended opportunity to explore issues and chart a path for the country, which is what Democrats are doing as they try to win the support of primary voters. They’ve begun putting out policy plans that, whether you favor them or not, are serious attempts to grapple with important challenges. ( Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s (D-Mass.) plan for universal access to child care is the latest.) Meanwhile, Trump is giving speeches making the ludicrous claim that anything Democrats propose will inevitably turn the United States into Venezuela.

And the response from the political press is to ask, “Are Democrats at risk of being labeled socialist socialists with all their socialist socialism?”

For instance, Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) was recently asked if she supported the elimination of private health insurance, as might occur under a strict single-payer plan; she responded that she would, describing some of the problems of private insurance. Her campaign later walked that back a bit, saying that it’s one possible option. But in an interview yesterday with NBC, here’s how she was asked to address the question: “Do you think eliminating private insurance would be a socialist idea?”

Not “How would that work?,” or “What are the tradeoffs?,” or “How does that compare to the alternatives?,” but whether that idea can be affixed with this controversial label, which of course the interviewer didn’t bother to explore or explain.

Harris began to respond, saying “I strongly believe that we need Medicare-for-all,” to which the reporter interrupted and said “Do you think that’s socialist or not?”

The proper answer is, Who cares? Like any policy idea, it’s either good or bad. The fact that the term “socialism” has become so fluid, with so many people using it to describe different things, makes it even less meaningful to just ask whether an idea is or isn’t socialist.

To be clear, I’m not saying there’s nothing to criticize Harris for on this score. At a time when health care is the single most important policy issue Democrats are debating, her position is frustratingly vague. Sometimes she says things that are supportive of single-payer, while at other times she sounds more as if she’d accept the current system with expanded government options for those without insurance. But that’s a reason to press her on the details of what she would do as president, not to demand that she embrace or reject the word “socialist.”

Harris made news the other day by saying "I am not a democratic socialist," but as far as I can tell no one asked her to explain precisely how that distinguishes her from other candidates; reporters and editors decided it was worth reporting only because it suggested some kind of label-based conflict among the candidates. And it's an important question to ask.

Harris is looking extremely strong, but at the moment she has been less clear than others about her approach to policymaking. We know that Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) favors maximally left positions on most issues; we know that Warren has a program of ambitious policy fixes meant to address inequality; we know that Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) is advocating a more incrementalist and pragmatic approach to governing. I’m interested to know how Harris compares in both the specific plans she’ll pursue and her broader philosophy of government. But quizzing her on “Socialist: yes or no?” is about the worst way to figure that out.

The best way to move the debate to more fruitful ground is for the candidates themselves to push back on these dumb questions. They can do that by responding “Who cares?” when they’re asked whether a particular idea is socialist or not.

Or to take a more specific example, if I were running for president and a reporter asked me if my health-care plan was socialist, I’d respond, “Is Medicare socialist?” Then I’d just wait for the answer. The reporter would probably sputter for a moment and say either, “I’m the one asking the questions here,” or perhaps, “Well, it depends how you look at it.”

Which is just the point: You can call Medicare socialist, or you can call it social democratic, or you can call it an appropriate government response to a need created by market failure, or you can call it a banana split. That may be a matter for academic debate, but the question a potential president has to confront is whether or not it’s a good idea. And you certainly can’t argue that Medicare isn’t socialist but letting more people have Medicare is socialist and therefore bad.

Let’s keep in mind that “Are Democrats socialist?” is precisely the question Trump wants us all to keep asking (as long as we don’t go any deeper), because it means we won’t be exploring what Democrats actually want to do. But we don’t have to do things the way Trump wants. We can have a more meaningful, substantive campaign that actually explores where the country ought to go from here. We just have to decide to do it.