By Jeff Mason
NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. (Reuters) – Conservative activists are enthusiastically taking up Republican President Donald Trump’s re-election rallying cry that his Democratic adversaries are pursuing a radical socialist ideology that will ruin the United States.
Conservative students, right-wing media personalities and pro-Trump fundraisers and fans have gathered just outside Washington this week for the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) that appears to have crystallized Republican messaging for the election.
Its theme was “America vs. Socialism,” taking aim at the candidates competing for the Democratic Party’s nomination to challenge Trump in the Nov. 3 election, especially Senator Bernie Sanders, the current front-runner and a self-described democratic socialist.
In speeches, panels and private conversations, senior Republican leaders decried socialism, hoping the message will resonate with voters.
“As we watch the rise of socialism today on the floor of the House of Representatives, on the floor of the United States Senate, and among the … presidential candidates on the Democratic side of the aisle, we must be vigilant,” Representative Liz Cheney of Wyoming said a session titled “Socialism: Wrecker of Nations and Destroyer of Societies.”
The Democratic candidates are a mix of moderates such as former Vice President Joe Biden, businessman Michael Bloomberg, former South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg and U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar and candidates further to the left including Senator Elizabeth Warren and Sanders. Except for Sanders, the Democratic candidates do not identify themselves socialists.
Leading Democratic elected officials including House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi have said socialism is not the view of their party, arguing that it is Trump and his allies on the right who are out of the political mainstream and a threat to American democracy.
Some of the Democratic candidates have focused on policy proposals aimed at reducing American income inequality through steps such as expanded government-provided healthcare, student debt forgiveness and higher taxes on the wealthy. The idea that America’s rich should pay more has broad public support, a Reuters poll https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-election-inequality-poll/majority-of-americans-favor-wealth-tax-on-very-rich-reuters-ipsos-poll-idUSKBN1Z9141 found in January.
When accusing Democrats of socialism, conservatives often mention proposals like the Medicare for All concept promoted by Sanders and Warren, which proposes replacing the current complex U.S. combination of private insurance and public programs with a government-run healthcare system that expands the existing Medicare program. The United States spends about twice what other high-income nations do on healthcare, while millions of Americans remain with no medical insurance.
‘THERE’S A RUMOR’
From early on in this campaign cycle, Trump has sought to brand Democrats as socialists and refers to the “radical left.” Trump regularly denounces socialism at his rallies, winning applause from supporters.
“I heard there’s a rumor the Democrats are going to change the name of the party from the ‘Democrat Party’ to the ‘Socialist Party,” Trump said in remarks in Japan last June.
His advertising outreach to Hispanic voters warned them that Democrats want Venezuela-style socialism, referring to the South American nation led by socialist President Nicolas Maduro that is gripped by economic crisis.
The Democratic National Committee denounced the cries of socialism heard at the CPAC event.
“This is the oldest trick in the GOP playbook,” said Daniel Wessel, a DNC spokesman, using shorthand for the Republican Party. “Republicans are trying to distract because they know they can’t win on the issues.”
“In 2017, 2018 and 2019, Democrats won on a message of expanding access to healthcare,” Wessel added, saying that as Trump works to overturn the Democratic-backed Affordable Care Act healthcare law and its mandate that insurers must cover people with pre-existing medical conditions “they’re scared we’ll do it again.”
As Trump and his allies try to paint his Democratic adversaries as socialists, the front-runner status of Sanders seems to give them a boost.
“He could win,” said Charlie Kirk of Turning Point USA, a conservative group focused on young people.
“We should not do what the left did in 2016 and dismiss an outsider populist candidate from thinking that person can’t win the White House,” Kirk added, referring to businessman-turned-politician Trump’s election victory four years ago.
“Socialism is seductive,” K.T. McFarland, a CPAC speaker and former deputy national security adviser to Trump, said in an interview.
“Socialism has failed everywhere it’s ever been tried, in every era, on every continent and among every class of people,” Vice President Mike Pence told the crowd, while urging attendees to talk to younger voters on about the topic.
At CPAC, where participants walked around wearing Trump memorabilia including “Make America Great Again” and “Keep America Great” hats, the message seemed to resonate.
“Socialism is creeping up on us,” said Jonathan Foss, 34, who traveled from Fargo, North Dakota.
Foss said a Sanders candidacy might be positive for Trump.
“It’s probably easier to combat than maybe someone like a Bloomberg,” he said, referring to the wealthy former New York City mayor.
Les Smyth, 53, a Republican from Florida who sold Trump-related memorabilia at a CPAC stand, said he was glad the president moved to tightened social welfare programs such as food assistance.
“I look at what works,” Smyth added. “And socialism I don’t think will work at all.”
(Reporting by Jeff Mason; Editing by Heather Timmons and Will Dunham)