Politics & Policy

Sanders’s ‘Democratic Socialism’ Speech Annoys Dem Insiders

Sanders at Georgetown University, November 19, 2015. (Mark Wilson/Getty)

It was a moment some had predicted would go down alongside Barack Obama’s 2008 speech on race and JFK’s 1960 speech on his Roman Catholicism in the annals of American political history. In front of an incongruous backdrop of Catholic crosses, stained-glass windows, and murals of the Mother Mary, Bernie Sanders took the stage at Georgetown University’s Gaston Hall on Thursday to finally explain why he’s running for president as a “democratic socialist.”

And across Washington, D.C., Democratic strategists let out exasperated sighs.

Since October, Sanders, who now trails Hillary Clinton by a wide margin in state and national polls, had promised to quiet concerns over his democratic socialism with a transformative speech explaining the ideology’s tenets. But some Democrats — both those who hope he does well and those who oppose his candidacy — wish he hadn’t bothered.

“It’s one of those things, ‘a rose by any other name?’” says Democratic strategist Brad Bannon, who worries about Americans’ inherent bias against a word more evocative of the Eastern Bloc than the East Side. “I think he undermines his own campaign by calling it ‘socialism’ instead of something else.”

RELATED: Is Bernie Sanders Finished?

“[Sanders] registered as a Democrat in New Hampshire a couple of weeks ago. He decided to run as a Democrat,” says Jim Manley, Harry Reid’s former communications director, who is supporting Clinton. “[Calling himself a democratic socialist] is the fundamental contradiction of his campaign.”

#share#If Sanders heard any of this from his own campaign managers, he didn’t let it stop him on Thursday. “Democratic socialism means that we must create an economy that works for all, not just the very wealthy,” the Vermont senator told an exuberant crowd of students. “The next time you hear me attacked as a socialist — like, tomorrow — remember this: I don’t think the government should take over the grocery store down the street, or own the means of production. But I do believe that the middle class and the working families who produce the wealth of America deserve a fair deal.”

For a while, it looked like Sanders would put off giving his socialism speech, but earlier this week, with the world reeling from the Paris attacks and debate raging in the Capitol over Syrian refugees, the Sanders campaign sent out an e-mail: The speech was on.

RELATED: Bernie’s Conspiracy Theory

“The timing is a little awkward,” says Manley, who thinks a foreign-policy focus would’ve been more appropriate. Clearly aware of that sentiment, on Thursday Sanders gave two separate speeches smashed into one — the first half on his socialism, and the second half centered on a strategy to defeat ISIS. As the senator argued that the Arab Gulf states must take a larger role in “the fight for the soul of Islam,” Georgetown students who had screamed and swooned just minutes before could be seen yawning and fidgeting uncomfortably.

Sanders continued to defend the socialist brand in the after-speech Q-&-A. “It’s not like I am this radical, wild-eyed socialist [saying], ‘Look at me!’” he said. “No, that’s not the issue. Look at the issues.”

#related#Indeed, several of Sanders’s key economic proposals — especially increasing taxes on the rich and corporations — are broadly popular with independents. Which makes it even more frustrating for some of Sanders’s admirers that he’s slapped an outdated label on his policy prescriptions. “I think a better term — because I think it’s more palatable to Americans — is ‘economic justice’ or ‘economic populism,’” says Bannon.

But as a true believer who’s spent his decades-long political career running as a socialist, it was probably inevitable that Sanders would keep the label in his presidential campaign. Dropping it would call his ideological integrity into question, and fundamentally undermine what is perhaps the central facet of his persona.

That’s a shame, says Bannon, who thinks the senator’s speech and continued use of the term “socialism” can only turn off voters who would otherwise support Sanders’s social-justice-oriented economic populism. “If his policies are a can of fruit, I think voters would enjoy what’s in the can, but might be turned off by the label,” he says.

Manley is more straightforward. “I’m still skeptical that a socialist can be elected the next president of the United States,” he says.

— Brendan Bordelon is a political reporter for National Review.

Most Popular

PC Culture

Hate-Crime Hoaxes Reflect America’s Sickness

On January 29, tabloid news site TMZ broke the shocking story that Jussie Smollett, a gay black entertainer and progressive activist, had been viciously attacked in Chicago. Two racist white men had fractured his rib, poured bleach on him, and tied a noose around his neck. As they were leaving, they shouted ... Read More
Politics & Policy

The Strange Paradoxes of Our Age

Modern prophets often say one thing and do another. Worse, they often advocate in the abstract as a way of justifying their doing the opposite in the concrete. The result is that contemporary culture abounds with the inexplicable — mostly because modern progressivism makes all sorts of race, class, and ... Read More
PC Culture

Fake Newspeople

This week, the story of the Jussie Smollett hoax gripped the national media. The story, for those who missed it, went something like this: The Empire actor, who is both black and gay, stated that on a freezing January night in Chicago, in the middle of the polar vortex, he went to a local Subway store to buy a ... Read More
World

Ilhan Omar’s Big Lie

In a viral exchange at a congressional hearing last week, the new congresswoman from Minnesota, Ilhan Omar, who is quickly establishing herself as the most reprehensible member of the House Democratic freshman class despite stiff competition, launched into Elliott Abrams. She accused the former Reagan official ... Read More
U.S.

White Progressives Are Polarizing America

To understand how far left (and how quickly) the Democratic party has moved, let’s cycle back a very short 20 years. If 1998 Bill Clinton ran in the Democratic primary today, he’d be instantaneously labeled a far-right bigot. His support for the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, the Defense of Marriage Act, ... Read More
Elections

One Last Grift for Bernie Sanders

Bernie Sanders, the antique Brooklyn socialist who represents Vermont in the Senate, is not quite ready to retire to his lakeside dacha and so once again is running for the presidential nomination of a party to which he does not belong with an agenda about which he cannot be quite entirely ... Read More
PC Culture

Merciless Sympathy

Jussie Smollett’s phony hate-crime story could have been taken apart in 24 hours, except for one thing: Nobody wanted to be the first to call bullsh**. Who will bell the cat? Not the police, and I don’t blame them. Smollett is a vocal critic of President Donald Trump who checks two protected-category ... Read More