President TrumpDonald John TrumpWhite House begins search for person who leaked president’s schedule: report O'Rourke to headline counter-Trump rally at border Trump touts Kim summit: North Korea will become economic 'rocket' MORE hadn’t had much success dividing Democrats until he found a word that would provoke very different responses from different members of the party during his State of the Union address: socialism.
Trump’s warning of creeping socialism in the United States, deftly mentioned after a section of the speech on the unfolding political crisis in Venezuela, created an immediate public split among Democrats that was caught on live television.
Senate Democratic Leader Charles Schumer (N.Y.) and Sens. Debbie Stabenow (Mich.), Joe Manchin (W.Va.), Jon Tester (Mont.) and Sherrod Brown (Ohio) were among the lawmakers who stood with Republicans to applaud Trump when he pledged that the United States would never slide into socialism.
But other Democrats weren’t so happy about Trump’s choice of words — which was clearly meant to put them on the spot.
Freshman Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), another leading Democratic Socialist, smiled in response to Trump's remark but stayed seated.
She later argued that Trump's attack is a sign her growing success.
“I think it was great. I think he’s scared," she told HuffPost. "He sees that everything is closing in on him. And he knows he’s losing the battle of public opinion when it comes to the actual substantive proposals that we’re advancing to the public."
The different reactions reflect a battle within the Democratic Party that Trump and Republicans are eager to exploit.
Progressive policies are on the rise within the party.
Sanders electrified liberals with his surprisingly strong challenge to Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primary in 2016, and Ocasio-Cortez is the political star of the day.
Both candidates favor a single payer health system that would provide “Medicare for all,” free college tuition and much higher marginal tax rates on the wealthy.
But some of the liberal policies make other Democrats uncomfortable — and that gave Trump’s attack line some teeth.
“I want proposals that work for people. I think it’s important to have people have skin in the game in health care so it isn’t all utilized. I think it’s important that people have skin in the game when they go to college,” Tester said, when asked about applauding Trump’s vow that the nation will never slide into socialism.
At the same time, Tester acknowledged that middle-class families are paying too much for health care and to send their kids to college.
“It’s all about finding the sweet spot about works for the country,” he said.
Brown, one of the senators who stood with Tester, opposes Medicare for all and has argued in favor of more incremental policies that would expand healthcare.
He’s seen as a possible 2016 contender along with Booker, who is already in the race, and Sanders, who has yet to announce a decision.
The Sanders Medicare-for-all legislation introduced in the last Congress attracted 16 Democratic cosponsors, including several presidential candidates such as Booker, Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.), Kamala Harris (Calif.) and Elizabeth Warren (Mass.).
Harris made headlines in late January by calling for the elimination of private health insurance and the adoption of Medicare for all during a CNN town hall event — a step too far for other Democrats.
Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin (Ill.) cautioned that private health insurance is “a massive part of the American economy” and “it would take a mighty transition” to move away from it.
Durbin noted, however, that he and many Democrats support a “Medicare-type plan, a not-for-profit public plan that is available to everyone” such as the so-called public option that was proposed as a competitor to private health plans when the Senate debated the Affordable Care Act in 2009.
Republicans have seized on Trump’s arguments to attack Democrats.
“Socialism has failed everywhere it’s been tried and we’re not going to try it in this country,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said on the Senate floor this week.
But Durbin warned that Trump and McConnell are using a dangerous tactic
“Every authoritarian regime of the last century has prefaced their grab for power by saying you’ve got to stop the left. Sometimes they call it socialist, sometimes they call it communist,” he said.
Durbin called Trump’s line at the State of the Union was “part of President Trump’s script and it troubles me.”
Sen. Doug Jones (D), who faces a tough re-election in Alabama next year, also stood up to applaud Trump’s rejection of socialism.
“I think it’s true. It’s a true statement, it’s not going to happen. It’s that simple, nobody wants it to happen,” he said of Trump’s pledge that the nation will never become socialist.
Jones dismissed Ocasio-Cortez’s proposal to tax the nation’s very highest income earners at 70 percent of their top-bracket income.
“There’s a lot of talk about things like that. I think we need to look at practical issues when it comes to tax and things like that and I’m not sure how practical that is,” he said.
A poll from The Hill did find that 59 percent of respondents backed a 70 percent marginal rate on income above $10 million, underlining support for some of the liberal policies that make some Democratic centrists uncomfortable.
Harris, asked on “The View” about Ocasio-Cortez’s ideas, including a 70 percent tax rate, said, “I think that she is challenging the status quo, I think that’s fantastic.”
Booker in an interview praised the Green New Deal, another proposal pushed by Ocasio-Cortez.
It states that the federal government’s duty is to achieve “net-zero” greenhouse gas emissions, create “millions of good, high-wage jobs” and invest in infrastructure and industry to “sustainably” meet the challenges of the new century.
“There are a lot of people out there pushing back against the Green New Deal, saying it is impractical, it is too expensive, it is all of this. If we used to govern our dreams that way, we would have never gone to the Moon. God, that's impractical,” Booker said.
Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii), who did not stand up to validate Trump’s applause line, says that “socialism” isn’t a bad word if it means providing people access to affordable health care and a comfortable living.
She said Medicare could be considered “socialized medicine.”
“If it’s socialism to want to have a progressive tax code that doesn’t just give the richest people more goodies, if it’s socialism to want health care as a right and not a privilege, then that’s where our country should be heading,” she said.
But she argued “all this labeling and trying to put people in little boxes” is a scare tactic.
“It’s really what you do that helps the majority of our people” that is important, she said.
Some polling shows that Americans are warming up to the idea of socialism, at least compared to a decade ago.
A Gallup poll published in August showed that 57 percent of Democrats said they viewed socialism positively while only 47 percent viewed capitalism positively.
When Gallup asked the question in 2010, 53 percent of Democrats said they had a positive view of socialism and 53 percent said they had a positive view of capitalism.
More than one in four Democrats, 26 percent, now say socialism means “equal standing for everybody, all equal in all rights, equal in distribution,” according to Gallup polling results published in October.
When Gallup last asked people about their understanding of the word socialism in 1949, only 12 percent of people viewed the term as synonymous with equality while 34 percent viewed it more negatively as “everything controlled by government.”