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Democrats seek to define themselves in a crowded presidential primary race

Former Texas congressman Beto O'Rourke poses for a photo with an audience member during a stop at the Central Park Coffee Company, Friday, March 15, 2019, in Mount Pleasant, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

WASHINGTON (SBG) – Democrat Beto O’Rourke described himself as a capitalist the day he announced he’s running for president, staking a claim on his commitments as the Democratic Party figures out its ideological direction.

"I'm a capitalist. I don't see how we're able to meet any of the fundamental challenges that we have as a country without, in part, harnessing the power of the market," said O’Rourke Thursday.

In previous primary campaign cycles, Democrat candidates have argued amongst themselves over who is more “liberal” or “conservative.” But as the 2020 race heats up, they are distinguishing themselves based on whether they identify as a “capitalist” or a “socialist,” prompted at least in part by Republican attempts to attack the party based on a growing interest in democratic socialism.

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, the only candidate to declare himself a democratic socialist, is largely responsible for bringing this discussion to the forefront, as his underdog 2016 campaign led to his party to adopt a more progressive platform. Fresh-faced Democrats including Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez now embrace the once-derided label socialist, reflecting especially younger voters’ skepticism of the status quo.

Democrat attitudes toward the term “socialism” have warmed over the past decade, according to a Gallup poll released late last year. But only about a third of the country overall has a positive view of the word- a number that’s stayed pretty stable. However, there’s a huge generational divide – the young may associate the word with a strong social safety net and a more equitable tax code, but older voters might get flashbacks of the Iron Curtain.

“Socialism remains pretty unpopular in America, although it’s more popular among young people.,” said Republican consultant Matt Mackowiak. "Polling hasn’t changed much on the country’s views of socialism. The chaos in Venezuela isn’t helping American attitudes.”

Michael D. Cohen, CEO of DC-based Cohen Research Group and an adjunct professor for the Sol Price School of Public Policy at the University of Southern California, warned Democrats need to be careful how they describe their policy goals if they don't want to risk alienating voters who want more economic security and health care access but are fearful of the costs.

“My read is that they are walking down a path that’s going to lead to Trump’s re-election,” said Cohen in an interview with Sinclair Broadcast Group, arguing that when you wrap up Green New Deal, Medicare-for-All, and free college it becomes easy for Republicans to sell the idea that Democrats are bent on bankrupting the country.

“[Trump’s] not just going to make America great again. He’s going to try to save America from socialism,” said Cohen, on the president’s campaign strategy. “It’s a much broader message than just ‘Hillary’s a crook.’”

Most Democrat candidates have pushed back against the socialist label as they work to make their progressive policies appealing to a broad base of voters. California Sen. Kamala Harris has stated she is not “a democratic socialist,” while anti-Wall Street crusader Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., said recently she's a capitalist who advocates "fair markets, markets with rules." Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., and Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., have said they aren’t democratic socialists.

But not everyone is comfortable with either label. Former Colorado governorJohn Hickenlooper, who made his fortune as a brewpub entrepreneur, dodged the question before finally answering that he's a capitalist but thinks choosing between marketplace versus government solutions is a false choice imposed by Republican rhetoric. Young long shot candidates Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, and South Bend, Indiana mayor Pete Buttigieg have both described the term socialism as not holding much meaning, prioritizing problem-solving over ideology.

“Democratic candidates have been tied up into knots over this question,” said Mackowiak. “Democratic candidates don’t want to turn off their left wing base and many of them support socialistic policy proposals, but they know that capitalism is the best system for America.”

Political commentator Arnie Arnesen said candidates shouldn't have to fall into one or the other camp. She told Sinclair Broadcast Group she thinks progressives should push back against the question, arguing forcing Democrats to choose between the two economic systems is a way to “stigmatize and label because that’s a way of avoiding dealing with the problem. I think we have to deal with the problem.”

Arnesen said even self-described democratic socialists like Sen. Sanders and Rep. Ocasio-Cortez are advocating for “capitalism with compassion and a strong safety net that works with capitalism,” asserting that neither system is working very well right now to serve the American people.

“I think the question needs to be turned on its head. And I think it’s disingenuous to ask the question, but if you want to ask the question be prepared for me to ask you how to defend the kind of capitalism that we’ve been seeing right now,” said Arnesen, pointing to income inequity and jobs being shipped overseas among other problems she associates with "capitalism that's out of control."

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