Accusations of socialism drive GOP’s 2019 (and 2020) playbook

Republicans are determined to paint Democrats as out-of-control, out-of-their minds socialists. And they think Democrats are helping.

President Donald Trump set the tone in his State of the Union address two weeks ago: “Tonight, we renew our resolve that America will never be a socialist country.” Republicans have been quick to carry the message forward, using Democrats words and actions against them.

  • Led by self-proclaimed socialist Democrat Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the party unveiled its “Green New Deal,” pledging economic security for every person, even those “unwilling” to work.
  • Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota caused an uproar by reaching for an overused trope and suggesting Jewish people were buying off lawmakers. She later apologized.
  • New York state approved legislation making it easier for a woman to have an abortion after 24 weeks of pregnancy.
  • Even on immigration, where Democrats got Trump to back off his bid for a wall, Democrats lost the public relations battle by insisting on a cap on detention beds.

Republicans are giddy.

“A far left fringe party pushing a socialist platform,” said Chris Pack, National Republican Congressional Committee communications director, describing Democrats in 2019.

The strategy could work in swing districts, figured Raleigh-based GOP strategist Carter Wrenn.

“It’s a legitimate question whether Democrats are going to go so far left they’ll get a reaction from swing voters,” he said.

He cited the Green New Deal as a particularly valuable GOP tool for making that argument as Republicans paint it as a radical way of cleaning up the environment.

The conservative Congressional Leadership Fund began running ads Tuesday in swing congressional districts blasting Democrats for the initiative.

Zach Hunter, the fund’s vice president, called the Green New Deal “nothing more than a far-left wishlist that will result in higher taxes and less freedom for Americans.”

At stake next year is control of Congress as well as the White House. Democrats gained 40 seats in November to win control of the House. Republicans need a net gain of 18 next year to win it back. In the Senate, Democrats need to gain three seats if a Democratic presidential candidate wins, four if Trump is re-elected.

By shifting further to the left, “Democrats are going down a perilous path,” said Terry Madonna, director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin & Marshall College.

When Democrats unveiled what they call a Green New Deal, GOP glee was palpable

“There were smiles on the faces of Republican operatives all around the country,” said the Pack.

The 13-page resolution, which lists goals but not specific ways to achieve them, aims for “net-zero greenhouse gas emissions through a fair and just transition for all communities and workers.” Democrats pitch the plan as an aspirational way to clean up the environment. Air will be cleaner. Food will be healthier. Oppression of “depopulated rural communities, the poor, low-income workers, women, the elderly, the unhoused, people with disabilities and youth” would ease.

The plan calls for “upgrading all existing buildings in the United States and building new buildings” that would be more energy efficient and “overhauling transportation systems” to lessen pollution.

The Republican-run Senate plans to vote on the plan — a clear effort to embarrass reluctant Democrats.

Democratic leaders are well aware that 31 of its incumbents represent districts Trump won in 2016, and in many of those districts, the Democrat won the House seat with barely more than 50 percent. Those districts tend to be away from the Northeast and West Coast, the centers of Democratic power and influence.

In South Carolina, Rep. Joe Cunningham, a Democrat, won the seat held by Republican Mark Sanford with slightly over 50 percent. In Georgia, Rep. Lucy McBath, a Democrat, unseated Republican Karen Handel with 50.5 percent of the vote.

They’re being subjected almost daily to their party’s self-inflicted bombardment.

New York lawmakers have passed legislation permitting abortions after 24 weeks of pregnancy if the fetus is not viable or the mother’s life is endangered. Trump took aim at that law during the State of the Union address. He spoke about babies “ripped from the mother’s womb moments from birth. These are living, feeling, beautiful, babies who will never get the chance to share their love and their dreams with the world.”

“Democrats are trying to create laws legalizing infanticide. It’s disgusting and out of touch with an overwhelming majority of our country,” said Pack.

Even this week, when Democrats could have been celebrating how they got Trump to back down from his demands that a concrete U.S.-border wall, that message was obliterated by Democratic-induced distractions. Talks to resolve the border dispute briefly broke down over the weekend as Republicans and Democrats disagreed about how much bed space to provide for detainees. Republicans, notably Trump, wanted more, Democrats wanted less.

Democrats argued that with fewer beds, immigrants charged with non-violent crimes are less likely to be detained. Democrats ended their bid Monday for a firm cap on detainees.

But the talking points lived on. Republicans maintained more beds are needed because undocumented immigrants should be detained, period.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, branded the idea “a get out of jail free card for criminals because the radical left doesn’t like U.S. immigration and customs enforcement.”

The Republican congressional committee Monday sent out press releases in swing districts warning “If (the local Democratic congressman) doesn’t have the courage to stand up to the socialists in his party, he will own the blame for another government shutdown.”

And all that controversy had to compete with yet another Democratic blowup.

At the same time, party leaders had another firestorm to douse. They were already being blasted by Republicans last week because they would not condemn what were perceived as anti-Semitic remarks and sentiments by two freshmen, Omar and Rep. Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, the first Muslim women ever elected to the House.

“If you cannot take action when you first hear the words of what they said, then you are susceptible to supporting what they are doing,” said House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California Friday.

Sunday, Omar tweeted that U.S. backing for Israel was “all about the Benjamins,” meaning money drove policy. Democratic leaders, led by Pelosi, quickly issued a statement calling the comments “deeply offensive.” Omar said she “unequivocally” apologized.

But the political damage was done. Republicans kept blasting away, questioning why it took the latest Omar comment to prod a Democratic response.

“Democrats have become the party of anti-Semitism and seem to have a real problem with one of our top allies in the Middle East,” said Pack.

Enough, said Cole Leiter, spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

“Every year Republicans claim they have a silver bullet that will guarantee them a win,” he said, “but if Washington Republicans think they are going to pick up seats running on the same deeply unpopular agenda of undermining protections for people living with pre-existing conditions, and forcing working Americans to foot the bill for massive tax handouts to the ultra-wealthy, then they have a very long couple of years ahead of them.”

But the reality, of course is that while Democrats won the House, Republicans had a net gain of one Senate seat last year and strengthened their control of that chamber.

“Democrats need to be careful,” said Brad Coker, managing director of Mason-Dixon Polling & Strategy in Jacksonville, Florida. “The country has shifted a little bit left because of Trump but it hasn’t gone off the deep end.”

David Lightman is McClatchy’s chief congressional correspondent. He’s been writing, editing and teaching for 47 years, with stops in Hagerstown, Riverside, Calif., Annapolis, Baltimore and since 1981, Washington.