For someone who never held elective office before the presidency, Donald Trump has made some savvy political moves during these first 25 months in office, many of them aimed at earning another 48 months in this job come 2020.
Of course, his undisciplined remarks often create stumbles, handing opponents openings and verbal ammo to use against him, though few of those seem to have left lasting marks so far. But a recent astute move came in probably the most-quoted part of his 5,100-word State of the Union address earlier this month.
The president had scorned Venezuela’s slide into turmoil and chaos under President Nicolas Maduro “whose socialist policies have turned that nation from being the wealthiest in South America into a state of abject poverty and despair.”
Then, Trump brought that news home for the nearly 47 million viewers watching live:
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“Here, in the United States, we are alarmed by new calls to adopt socialism in our country. America was founded on liberty and independence — not government coercion, domination and control. We are born free, and we will stay free. Tonight, we renew our resolve that America will never be a socialist country.”
For many Americans, that statement revealed only a keen grasp of the obvious. But for significant, energetic sectors now assembling for the 2020 primary competition in the left wing of the Democratic Party, those were fighting words.
You could see it in the House chamber audience. Most members, including Republicans and Democrats and their leadership, rose to their feet and launched one of the night’s 104 outbursts of applause.
However, some important Democrats did not. They included Sen. Bernie Sanders, a self-identified democratic socialist who just joined the presidential primary fray, and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, new to the House and a card-carrying member of the Democratic Socialists of America.
Political speechwriters sprinkle applause lines throughout such addresses; they even insert warning punctuations for the speaker to pause. That effective applause line was aimed at highlighting the widening gap among Democrats, specifically the ebullient Ocasio-Cortez, who may replace House Speaker Nancy Pelosi as the favorite GOP target this cycle.
It’s no accident that Ocasio-Cortez and others are talking up socialism, higher taxes and more government involvement in Americans’ lives, say, through a completely government-run health care system.
Last August, a nationwide Gallup poll of Democrats found a substantial majority of them (57 percent) viewed socialism positively, while a minority (47 percent) viewed capitalism positively.
That’s a significant change since 2010, when positive views of both were equal.
Here’s an interesting but meaningful twist: The socialism Ocasio-Cortez advocates is intentionally packaged far differently than the traditional heavy-handed, failed version that Trump describes with government controlling the means of production and distribution.
Gallup now finds that more than one in four Democrats believes that socialism instead means “equal standing for everybody, all equal in all rights, equal in distribution.”
That’s a vastly different definition that dodges the real-life Venezuela model and is much easier to sell to many Democratic voters, especially if they are as poorly-read in history as most younger Americans.
Last week, Ocasio-Cortez was celebrating her successful opposition to Amazon’s plans to build a second headquarters in New York City with 25,000 high-paying jobs.
“Anything is possible,” she tweeted when the online giant abandoned its plan to locate in her district. “Today,” Ocasio-Cortez wrote, “a group of dedicated, everyday New Yorkers & their neighbors defeated Amazon’s corporate greed, its worker exploitation and the power of the richest man in the world.”
CNN then sought the reaction of a fellow Democrat and New Yorker, Rep. Carolyn Mahoney. “My constituents want jobs,” said the 13-term House veteran. “It used to be we would protest wars. Now, we’re protesting jobs?”
Stand by in the coming months to hear that progressive fissure voiced over and over, and for Trump and other Republicans to foment it at every opportunity.
With a Democratic primary field as large as it’s expected to be, the competitive juices are ripe for the kind of hyperbolic exploitation and divisions that plagued the 17-candidate Republican field in 2016.
That melee plucked the nomination from control of party elites and handed it to an unexpected and divisive candidate who’d garnered only a 45 percent plurality of party primary votes. In 2020, Democrats could see a similarly perilous dynamic.