Can you imagine Bernie Sanders explaining what "democratic socialism" means to him every day during a general election?— Steve D (@Steverocks35) January 26, 2016
.@Steverocks35 and every down ticket candidate having to do it too.— Bryan Gamble (@BVGamble) January 26, 2016
My opinion is more along these lines:
(Total crackpot theory on my part, but I have to wonder if 8 years of lobbing "socialist" at Obama has not devalued it as an attack label.)— James Poniewozik (@poniewozik) January 26, 2016
No, I don't think this a "crackpot theory." Back in 2010, a Harris poll found that 40% of Americans thought President Obama was a socialist, including two-thirds of Republicans. In a poll that same year from James Carville's Democracy Corps, 55% of respondents overall said Obama was a socialist.
Democrats got their clocks cleaned that year in the midterms. But two years later, Obama won reelection fairly handily.
I agree with James Poniewozick that overuse by the right has blunted the impact of the word "socialist," except among people who'd never vote for a Democrat anyway. And don't forget, if you're in your late thirties or younger, even "communist," a label the New York Post recently tried to apply to Sanders, isn't much of an insult -- if you're that age, you've spent your entire adolescence and adulthood in a post-communist world. The Berlin Wall fell 26 years ago.
The most striking thing about the answer Sanders gave last night was its sense of decency. I think that blunts the line of attack quite a bit:
QUESTION: Yes, Senator, some of your detractors have called you a socialist on occasions, and you don't seem too troubled by that, and sometimes embrace it. I wondered if you could elaborate on that...I think Sanders would eventually have to augment this stock answer by reassuring the public that he doesn't want the government to nationalize private industry. But apart from that, it's an answer that makes him seem compassionate and grandfatherly, not scary.
SANDERS: ... Sure...
QUESTION: ... And just to show us what the comfort level you have your definition of it so that it doesn't concern the rest of us citizens.
SANDERS: Well, what Democratic Socialism means, to me, is that economic rights, the right to economic security is - should exist in the United States of America. It means to me that there's something wrong when we have millions of senior citizens today trying to get by on $11, $12,000 a year Social Security. It means there's something wrong when the rich get richer, and almost everybody else gets poorer. It means there is something wrong, and government should play a role in making sure that all of our kids, regardless of their income, are able to get a higher education.
Which is why I'm calling for free tuition at public colleges and universities, and why we have to deal with this horrendous level of student debt that people are having.
Now, what's going on in countries around the world, in Scandinavia, and in Germany. The ideas that I am talking about are not radical ideas. So, what Democratic Socialism means to me in its essence is that we cannot continue to have a government dominated by the billionaire class, and a congress that continues to work for the interest of the people on top while ignoring working families.
What this campaign is about, and what I believe, is creating a government that works for all of us, not just a handful of people on the top. That's my definition of Democratic Socialism.
Steve D thinks Sanders will have to explain this "every day" if he's the nominee. Um, I think that newfangled wireless and all the other modern communication doodads -- what do the kids call that really new one? The "Internet"? -- will transmit his answers to the public effectively. After a while, we'll have his answer and accept it or not.
I don't think "socialism" is the word he has to fear. The word he has to fear is "taxes."
Here's the full answer to a question about whether the Sanders health plan will require a tax increase:
SANDERS: Yes, we will raise - we will raise the - we will raise taxes, yes, we will. But also let us be clear, Chris, because there's a little bit of disingenuity out there, we may raise taxes but we are also going to eliminate private health insurance premiums for individuals and for businesses.If Sanders is the nominee, the "we will raise taxes, yes, we will" part of that answer will become as famous as John Kerry's "I actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it," through attack-ad repetition. The second part will be ignored.
But if Hillary Clinton is the nominee, the GOP will attack her on taxes, too:
HIllary has already specified One Trillion in higher taxes (A new AMT, income taxes, increased taxes on businesses.) https://t.co/8TbjQrUtJF— Grover Norquist (@GroverNorquist) January 26, 2016
The attack is likely to stick to Sanders, however, because he's talking about a more activist government than Clinton is. The question is whether his rebuttals would be effective. They might be. We don't know. He answers most questions by talking about how ordinary people have been shafted. He blames the powerful. That resonates with a lot of voters. Enough voters? It's not clear yet.
I think Republicans who try to attack Sanders as a socialist may find that the word has lost its impact. "Taxes"? That's an evergreen. That's a line of attack that never goes out of fashion.