WASHINGTON - As Sen. Bernie Sanders doubled down on his agenda of democratic socialism during an address Wednesday, the presidential candidate was doing more than defending a label that remains highly controversial in U.S. politics.
Sanders was also speaking to the state of the 2020 presidential race.
President Donald Trump has sought to cast the entire Democratic field as "socialist," and some centrist Democrats distance themselves from policies such as government-run health care. Sanders' speech and Trump's reaction could help shape the landscape of the crowded field of candidates aiming for the White House.
"Over eighty years ago, Franklin Delano Roosevelt helped create a government that made transformative progress in protecting the needs of working families," Sanders said. "Today, in the second decade of the 21st century, we must take up the unfinished business of the New Deal and carry it to completion."
Sanders used the address to criticize Trump.
"We have a demagogue in the White House who, for cheap political gain, is attempting to deflect the attention of the American people away from the real crisis," Sanders said.
"While President Trump and his fellow oligarchs attack us for our support of democratic socialism, they don't really oppose all forms of socialism," Sanders said. "They may hate democratic socialism because it benefits working people, but they absolutely love corporate socialism that enriches Trump and other billionaires."
Sterlin Waters, 21, a George Washington University student from Florida who attended the speech, said Sanders "made great points" but he is going to wait to make a decision on a candidate. Most of all, he said, he wants Trump "out."
Laurie Krieger, an anthropologist working in international public health, called herself a "lifelong democratic socialist" who worked for Sanders in 2016. Krieger, who attended the address Wednesday, said she got invited by text message.
One woman in the audience wore a red-and-white "MAGA"-style hat, but instead of Trump's campaign slogan, it was emblazoned with the words "Medicare for All."
More: Bernie Sanders to defend democratic socialism in face of attacks
Trump, whose Rose Garden news conference with the president of Poland preempted coverage of Sanders' address on cable television, has made his opposition to socialism a central theme of his reelection campaign, holding up the economic collapse in socialist Venezuela as a warning to voters in the USA. The president has frequently plucked out policy ideas from liberal lawmakers - such as abolishing U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement or launching an impeachment - and affixing those ideas with a broad brush to all Democrats.
"The Democrat Party is really now the socialist party," Trump told Republicans in Iowa on Tuesday. "We've never done better, and it's really easy as a socialist to say, when you're doing well, let's do this. We're going to take this, we're going to give you a free this and that."
Inherent in that criticism, experts said, is the concern that if Democrats embrace a candidate too far to the left, it will help Trump court the same blue-collar Democratic voters who were critical to his victory in 2016. Jim Kessler, executive vice president at the center-left think tank Third Way, said the socialist tag, if it sticks, could be damaging.
"We have never elected a national Democrat to the White House who is far to the left," Kessler said. "Walter Mondale won one state. George McGovern won two. We are whistling past the graveyard if we think that's changed."
Aides said Sanders is eager for the fight. Some of his fellow Democratic candidates are less so.
"We must be progressive but also pragmatic," Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper told Iowa Democrats over the weekend. "We need a dreamer but also a doer. We must present a bold vision for the future, but we also must acknowledge that the most effective charge Republicans can level against us is 'socialism.' "
More: Trump looks to pin 'socialism' label on Democrats before 2020. Will it stick?
For a nation that became the global counterweight to the Soviet Union after World War II, the term "socialism" has long been used as a stand-in for "communism," and it has been viewed as anathema to American politics. Sen. John McCain and his running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, trotted out the word during the 2008 presidential campaign to attack Barack Obama's income tax proposals.
During the 2016 Democratic primary, Hillary Clinton sought to use the S-word against Sanders, indicating she had heard from party officials who were "concerned" about the Vermont senators' policies. Clinton, who ran as a centrist, won the nomination, but it was Sanders who fired up much of the Democratic base.
Sanders acknowledged opponents would continue to use the term socialism as a "slur."
"I have faced and overcome these attacks for decades," Sanders said.
Fifty-one percent of U.S. adults say socialism would be a bad thing for the country, and 43% say it would be a good thing, according to a Gallup poll published last month. That marks a sharp contrast with a Roper/Fortune survey in 1942 that found 40% describing socialism as a bad thing, 25% a good thing and 34% not having an opinion.
Sanders stands alone among the field of nearly two dozen major Democratic presidential candidates to identify as a "democratic socialist." Sanders defined the philosophy as not shaped by Marxism but rather embracing the ideals of President Roosevelt's New Deal.
In practice, that has meant embracing "Medicare for all," which would allow the government-run Medicare program for seniors to provide health insurance for every American. Sanders has supported free or debt-free college tuition, paid for by taxpayers, and the ambitious Green New Deal to curb climate change.
"Economic rights are human rights," Sanders said. "And that is what I mean by democratic socialism."
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 2020 Democrats shy from 'socialist' label. Not Bernie Sanders