Sen. Kamala D. Harris is raising the possibility of eliminating private health insurance. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and other prominent Democrats are floating new and far-reaching plans to tax the wealthy. In Virginia, Gov. Ralph Northam voiced support for state legislation that would reduce restrictions on late-term abortions.

Democrats, after two years largely spent simply opposing everything President Trump advocated, are defining themselves lately in ways Republicans are seizing on to portray them as far outside the American mainstream.

Casting Democrats as a scary and radical force is giving a fractured Republican Party a common thrust at a time when Trump’s standing even within his own party has started to dip. And it is giving Democrats a bit of the heartburn that Republicans have been grappling with for more than two years.

The field of 2020 presidential contenders are up against a unique set of challenges, from standing out on the campaign trail to dealing with President Trump. (Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post)

“There is legitimate concern among Democrats about policy and rhetoric that comes out of the very far left,” said Ed Rendell, the former governor of Pennsylvania and former chairman of the Democratic National Committee. “Yes, they hurt. It gives Republicans fodder to continue this train of thought that Democrats have become a socialist party. . . . They pounce on anything someone in our party says and make it seem like it represents the whole party.”

Abortion, taxes and health care have long been among the most combustible political topics. But in the context of the energetic field of 2020 candidates and amid coarsening political rhetoric, they have taken on new gravity. The past few days offer a preview of the next two years, as Democrats argue that the country is yearning for policies previously believed to be too far left, and Republicans cast them as “radical zealots” (Fox News host Laura Ingraham), “so radicalized” (presidential son Eric Trump) and “the party of death” (former House speaker Newt Gingrich).

Howard Schultz, a self-described lifelong Democrat, has spent the first days of his potential independent bid for president adding to the charged criticism, calling selected Democratic proposals “un-American.”

The comments from Northam fueled an intense debate over late-term abortions that left many Democrats trying to avoid the topic altogether. On WTOP-FM on Wednesday, he defended legislation that would ease some restrictions on third-trimester abortions, which are currently allowed up to the point of delivery if the mother’s life is at grave risk.

“If a mother is in labor, I can tell you exactly what would happen,” he said. “The infant would be delivered. The infant would be kept comfortable. The infant would be resuscitated if that’s what the mother and the family desired, and then a discussion would ensue between the physicians and the mother.”

Northam said in the interview that he was talking about “cases where there may be severe deformities. There may be a fetus that’s not viable.” And he said later his reference to a post-birth “discussion” referred to medical care.

Republicans pounced on the governor as favoring infanticide. Northam on Thursday said he stood by his statement, which he characterized as having been taken out of context.

“No, I don’t have any [regrets]. . . . The personal insults toward me, I really find disgusting,” said Northam, a pediatric neurologist. “We can agree to disagree,” he added. “But let’s be civil about it.”

The debate over his comments — and by extension the subject of abortion rights — extended beyond the commonwealth as Republicans cast him as insensitive and immoral. From the Senate floor, Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) called Northam’s remarks “repugnant.”

“We’re talking about killing a baby that’s been born,” he insisted. “We’re not talking about some euphemism. We’re not talking about a clump of cells.”

Democrats on Thursday were placed in a position that Republicans have grown familiar with over the past several years: trying to distance themselves from comments made by someone in their party.

“I’m sorry, I just don’t know what he said yesterday,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said when asked to respond to Northam’s comments.

Unlike Republicans, who have been regularly called to answer for the remarks of their party’s leader, President Trump, Democrats face a more complicated dynamic. Out of power except in the House, they lack a single standard-bearer, a circumstance that allows many voices to fill the void. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-
Cortez (D-N.Y.) drew fire with her proposal for a 70 percent marginal tax rate on incomes over $10 million. She and Sen. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) are filing legislation to flesh out a “Green New Deal” meant to address climate change.

In the meantime, multiple presidential candidates — such as Harris, of California, and Warren, of Massachusetts — are flagging liberal positions as they seek support for their presidential ambitions from the party’s activist base. Those proposals are then being cast by Republicans as shared by the Democratic Party as a whole.

Some moderates argue that Republicans are overstepping voter sentiment and criticizing positions that are politically popular.

“What some political people don’t fully understand: Medicare for all is not a radical position,” Matthew Dowd, a former top Republican who is a vocal Trump critic, wrote on Twitter. “Increased taxes on the very wealthy is not a radical position. Gun reform is not radical. All are supported by a majority of the country. If you are a centrist, that is the center.”

A majority of Americans have long supported abortion rights, as well, although a majority also opposes late-term abortions, which are conducted amid dire medical problems.

Warren and Harris have been among the most aggressive of the presidential candidates in putting forward ideas that have now come under fire. Warren last week proposed a “wealth tax” that would add levies on assets in the 75,000 households with a net worth above $50 million.

Harris this week said she supported Medicare-for-all, which has been an early litmus test for most Democrats and is a concept that is generally popular.

But while speaking during a CNN town hall Monday, she also said she favored eliminating private health insurance. Harris aides later pointed out that she has supported other Medicare-for-all plans that protect private insurance, but by then the criticism had already surged.

The liberal cant to the Democratic Policy positions reflects the direction that party activists have moved.

Since 1992, the percentage of Americans identifying as liberal has risen nearly 10 percentage points, to 26 percent now, according to Gallup surveys. That shift was most offset by a shrinking number who consider themselves moderates, from 43 percent in 1992 to 35 percent now.

A Gallup survey released in January also found that 51 percent of Democrats identified as liberal, the first time a majority of Democrats adopted the term.

The problem for the party is that winning — either Congress or the White House — also requires those in the party who consider themselves pragmatists.

“We’ve got to have actionable, practical ideas,” former Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe (D) said last week during a conference at the University of Virginia. “And I worry — we can’t get into this election season with everybody trying to out-promise one another.”

“I’m all for aspirational goals,” he added, highlighting free college education as one. “But it’s got to be practical. . . . We have to make sure some of these things are actually real — and voters have to pay attention to this.”

More-moderate Democrats remind the party’s liberal flank that its House takeover mostly was powered by middle-of-the-road platforms the won support in the nation’s suburbs.

“We’ve got to be effective at pushing back because everyone is afraid of our base like a lot of Republicans are afraid of the tea party base,” said Rendell, the former Pennsylvania governor.

Republicans who have watched their party engage in a civil war recently are hoping to capitalize on battles unfolding among Democrats.

“There’s always been a progressive caucus and these different groups. But they’ve never had to deal with the equivalent of the Freedom Caucus on the left. That’s actually starting to change,” said Andy Surabian, a Republican strategist and former official in Trump’s White House.