More than a year out from the 2020 elections, the Democratic Party is in a fight for its identity. Meanwhile Trump and the GOP have landed on how they want to identify its members: as socialists.

And polling bears out that they are on to something. As The Fix’s Aaron Blake wrote earlier this month, Trump trails or is in a dead heat with each individual Democratic candidate tested in the last Washington Post-ABC poll. But he comes out ahead when voters are asked to say whether they would vote for Trump or a socialist.

To wit: One front in the president’s ongoing Twitter tirade against four liberal Democratic congresswomen (in addition to making racist statements about them) has been to include charges of socialism.

AD

“We will never be a Socialist or Communist Country,” he tweeted. “IF YOU ARE NOT HAPPY HERE, YOU CAN LEAVE! It is your choice, and your choice alone. This is about love for America.”

AD

Some have responded to the characterization by attempting to clarify where they stand on issues. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), a self-described democratic socialist, has attempted to distinguish her worldview from socialism. During a January interview with late-night television host Stephen Colbert, for example, he jokingly called her a socialist while describing her desire to impose higher taxes on the wealthy.

“Democratic,” she said. “Very different.”

But nuance in this debate won’t matter to Trump and Republicans, argues Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg. It might be tempting for Democrats to focus on pushing back against Trump, but the South Bend, Ind., mayor believes that the best approach is to move forward without taking that into consideration. For Democrats, that will mean spending less time responding to Trump and more time addressing the issues voters that are discussing most; and socialism isn’t one of them.

AD
AD

Speaking Saturday at a Council Bluffs, Iowa, forum sponsored by AARP and the Des Moines Register, Buttigieg said:

“If we adopt a platform that’s way out to the left, they’re going to say we’re socialists. If we adopt a more moderate or conservative platform, they’re going to say we’re socialists,” Buttigieg said, eliciting laughs and applause from the crowd. “So we might as well just do what we think is right, make the case for it and then let them do what they want.”

He has been making this point for some time. In April, Buttigieg accused Trump of “crying wolf” in his efforts to attach the socialist label to liberal lawmakers.

“Talk about going into the past, the president is adopting a tactic that takes us back to the darkest days of the 1950s when you could use the word ‘socialist’ to kill somebody’s career or to kill an idea,” he said on ABC’s “Good Morning America.” “But that trick has been tried so many times that I think it is losing all meaning.”

AD
AD

He’s not wrong that it is an old characterization. The Fix’s J.M. Rieger has pointed out that tying Democrats to socialism has been happening for almost a century. In February, Buttigieg accused Trump of trying to silence those to the left of him with the label instead of discussing ideas.

“I think he’s clinging to a rhetorical strategy that was very powerful when he was coming of age 50 years ago, but it’s just a little different right now.,” he said on CNN. “If you grew up during that Cold War period, then you saw a time in politics when the word “socialism” could be used to end an argument. Today I think a word like that is the beginning of a debate, not the end of a debate.

Buttigieg’s point is that adopting policies with the goal of keeping the Republican Party from labeling its political opponents socialists should not be the goal. In this current political climate, it is highly unlikely that Democrats will be able to force the GOP to acknowledge their definitions to the point that Republicans cease describing the Democratic Party as one that embraces socialism, regardless of where a particular Democrat falls on the political spectrum. So Buttigieg believes it best for his party to promote ideas that are consistent with its values — and not focus on how the GOP frames them.

AD
AD

He’s right in part because many voters — particularly those willing to consider Democratic candidates — understand that Trump is prone to dishonesty. An example is that some of the independent voters who helped him win the general election in 2016 have since walked away from him, according to the latest NPR-NewsHour-Maris poll. These voters — largely white, college-educated professionals in the suburbs — gave Trump a try in the previous election and now are anything but a lock to vote for him again.

But while Buttigieg says Democrats aren’t going to be able to escape the socialism label, he also must recognize the political danger that Democrats are in if they don’t fend it off. A big part of his pitch to voters is that the best person to make that argument is perhaps a centrist with experience in corporate America who is well-respected by those with more traditional values: essentially him.

Buttigieg hopes the argument could be a winning one in Iowa, a state that Buttigieg needs to perform well in if he’s going to replace some of the more left-leaning candidates — Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) — in the top spots in the polls. Not attacking his competitors who have big followings based on their far-left policies — both Warren and Sanders lead Buttigieg in polls — as too close to socialism leaves Buttigieg room to maneuver with their supporters. But his point is arguably one of the reasons former vice president Joe Biden has led the Democratic field since announcing his candidacy.

AD
AD

Buttigieg has repeatedly argued that best way to engage the ongoing internal battle for the Democratic Party’s true identity battle is to spend less time responding to Trump and more time addressing the issues that voters are discussing most. Socialism isn’t necessarily one of those, but Republicans seem committed to that message. So whether it’s wise to disregard the argument as pointless is something we’ll get to watch play out.

AD
AD