Pence mocked Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), a Democratic candidate challenging President Trump in 2020, as an out-of-touch socialist and the health-care and energy policies endorsed by several others among the 2020 Democratic field as big government.
“Democrats openly advocate an economic system that has impoverished millions of people around the world,” Pence said in an address to the annual Conservative Political Action Conference.
“Under the guise of ‘Medicare-for-all’ and a ‘Green New Deal,’ Democrats are embracing the same tired economic theories that have impoverished nations and stifled the liberties of millions over the past century,” Pence said. “That system is socialism.”
Trump also labeled Democrats as socialists and accused them of wanting to turn the United States into Venezuela. Pence broadened that charge Friday, tying the 2020 field to liberal agenda items that not all Democrats endorse.
Trump will address the annual conference on Saturday.
“What Medicare-for-all really means is quality health care for none,” Pence said. “And the only thing green about the so-called Green New Deal is how much green it’s going to cost taxpayers if these people ever pass it into law.”
The idea that the new Democratic agenda constituted “socialism” — and that, if enacted, it would send the United States tumbling toward the fate of Venezuela — was dominant throughout the conference. Pence invoked “socialism” 18 times, warning that Sanders, who leads in polls of declared candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination, was writing the party’s agenda.
“Bernie has been joined by a chorus of candidates and newly elected officials who have papered over the failed policies of socialism with bumper-sticker slogans and slick social media campaigns,” he said.
Pence got loud applause for references to Trump’s promised border wall and antiabortion policies and also received sustained applause for declaring that anti-Semitism “must be universally condemned.” Trump drew criticism in 2017 for an equivocal response to anti-Semitic and white-nationalist marchers in Charlottesville.
Pence urged Latin American leaders in Colombia on Monday to do more to oppose the socialist government of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, and he met with opposition leader Juan Guaidó. The United States and most Western nations recognize Guaidó as the country’s legitimate leader, but Maduro retains control.
“We know where socialism leads. You want socialism? Just look at Venezuela,” Pence said Friday.
“Venezuela was once one of the richest and most vibrant democracies in the Western Hemisphere, but under Maduro’s socialist rule, it has become one of the poorest and most despotic,” Pence said, citing the country’s 90 percent poverty rate and millions of refugees who have fled.
“The struggle in Venezuela is between dictatorship and democracy, between socialism and freedom,” he said.
The Trump administration announced new sanctions Friday against six high-ranking government officials tied to Maduro. The Treasury Department accused the six of obstructing delivery of humanitarian aid.
The State Department also imposed new visa restrictions on dozens of Maduro government officials and their families, restricting their travel to the United States.
Although Pence and Trump have repeatedly said that military force remains an option to deliver humanitarian aid or defend U.S. interests, the administration appears to have stepped back from its most bellicose rhetoric this week.
Pence did not repeat the “all options” language at CPAC. Elliott Abrams, the State Department’s special envoy for Venezuela, rejected criticism from Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov suggesting that the United States is gunning for military intervention.
“I don’t think he actually believes that we’re attempting to do that, and I think, as you know, we are not attempting to do that,” Abrams said.
“We continue to say and we always will that all options are on the table, because they always are. But I think anyone who actually looks at American policy in Venezuela could not reach that conclusion.”
Abrams also declined to comment Friday on a tweet from Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) that appeared to suggest Maduro could meet the same fate as Libyan dictator Moammar Gaddafi, who was executed.
“I’m not going to get into that other than to say that I think that dictatorships come to an end. Some last for a very long time, others a much shorter time,” Abrams told reporters. “This one in Venezuela will also come to an end. We hope that it comes to an end quickly and peacefully.”
The Trump administration is not concerned about any perceived loss of momentum for the opposition after Maduro’s show of force in turning back aid trucks last weekend and Guaidó’s decision to leave the country for talks with Pence and other leaders, Abrams said.
“What underlies all this is not anything the United States is doing. What underlies it is the desire of the Venezuelan people to escape from the condition of dictatorship and economic misery that they are suffering, and that has not diminished,” Abrams said.
Guaidó was in Brazil on Thursday, attempting to solidify support for his challenge to Maduro. He vowed to return to Venezuela by Monday, despite threats of imprisonment. Abrams said the United States is concerned about his welfare as he returns.
“I think that if he were arrested on his return, you would see a very large reaction on the part of the Venezuelan people and on the part of the international community,” Abrams said.
Also Thursday, the United States and Russia presented rival measures on Venezuela in the U.N. Security Council. The council rejected both the U.S. version backing Guaidó and the Russian one backing Maduro.
David Weigel in Oxon Hill, Md., contributed to this report.