Michael Bennet stood and applauded when President Donald Trump declared in his State of the Union address “that America will never be a socialist country.” Seth Moulton has said a democratic socialist won’t win the White House in 2020.
On Thursday, John Hickenlooper went further: Democrats aren’t socialists, the former Colorado governor said at a speech in Washington, and Democratic candidates for president should stop embracing Bernie Sanders and his liberal policies if they want to oust President Donald Trump in 2020.
Story Continued Below
For weeks, bottom-dwelling centrists in the Democratic primary have decried socialism while largely avoiding directly attacking Sanders, the only self-described democratic socialist in the 24-person primary. Hickenlooper and former Maryland Rep. John Delaney wielded the argument recently to grab attention they’ve desperately sought.
California Democrats booed both candidates earlier this month, when Hickenlooper told a convention of liberal activists that “socialism is not the answer” to beating Trump and Delaney dismissed Medicare for All as neither “good policy, nor is it good politics.”
For candidates polling around 1 percent, negative attention is still attention.
Sanders, for his part, gave his own speech this week defending democratic socialism. On Wednesday, the independent Vermont senator proposed a “21st century economic Bill of Rights” that would ensure the right to a decent job, health care, affordable housing, higher education, secure retirement and a clean environment.
He also tied himself to four-term president Franklin D. Roosevelt, whose “progressive coalition created the New Deal” and “an economy that worked for all and not just the few,” Sanders said.
The timing couldn’t have been more perfect for Hickenlooper, who had planned a Thursday morning speech at the National Press Club in Washington on abortion rights and health care initiatives that were implemented in Colorado. By Wednesday, however, his campaign had announced a new topic: Sanders and socialism.
Hickenlooper opened his 18-minute remarks immediately invoking Sanders. “I have great respect for Sen. Sanders,” he said. “He’s provided clarity and urgency around the major issues for working families. But I fundamentally disagree that we should do away with the democratic-regulated capitalism that has guided this country for over 200 years.”
Hickenlooper insisted his stance “is shared by many of my Democratic colleagues.” “But for some reason,” he lamented, “our party has been reluctant to express directly its opposition to democratic socialism. In fact, the Democratic field has not only failed to oppose Sen. Sanders’ agenda, but they’ve actually pushed to embrace it.”
He took at aim at most of the field, noting that a majority of candidates “support at least one of Sanders’ various proposals.” He whacked Medicare for All for not taking on “fee for service,” cast the Green New Deal as legislation that will never make it through Congress and framed free college as misplaced spending that ignores the fact that roughly two-thirds of Americans will never receive a four-year degree.
“Democrats,” Hickenlooper said, “must say loudly and clearly that we are not socialists. If we do not, we will end up helping to reelect he worst president in this country’s history.”
Republicans have sought to paint the Democratic Party as “socialist Democrats,” an effort Hickenlooper noted fell flat during the 2018 midterms but warned could prove effective with Sanders at the top of the ticket in 2020.
“Republicans may call Democrats ‘socialists’ no matter how moderate we truly are,” Hickenlooper said. “Democratic socialism is not only a poor electoral strategy — it’s a disastrous governing model. While Sanders has attacked those in the center for preaching incrementalism — the reality is that pragmatists don’t say ‘no’ to big ideas, they figure out how to actually get them done. While government plays a vital role in tackling big challenges, it has rarely been successful alone.”
Though Sanders is a top-tier candidate who often trails only former Vice President Joe Biden in national polls, other moderate candidates like Hickenlooper, Delaney, Bennet and Moulton are stuck around 1 percent. Moulton will likely be one of only four candidates who won’t appear on stage at the first back-to-back debates in Miami later this month.
Hickenlooper, however, was adamant that his message as an accomplished governor who got things done is resonating with voters, despite his poor standing in the polls.
“My problem is not what I’m selling. It’s how do I get that information to the buyer — and luckily I’m unemployed,” he quipped to reporters after his address. “If I’m wrong, I’ll have wasted three or four months of my life having an amazing, fascinating experience. I don’t see a downside.”