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.”
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“[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.
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“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.