It took just 24 hours for the clearest example of the sharp ideological divides within the 2020 Democratic presidential primary to take shape, with former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders publicly sparring over the party’s embrace of democratic socialism.
Hickenlooper on Thursday denounced Sanders’ call for democratic socialism in a speech at the National Press Club, just a day after Sanders gave a speech explaining it elsewhere in Washington. The dueling speeches are the latest example of a Democratic candidate going after Sanders for his progressive views, and serve as a reminder that, in a crowded primary, not all Democrats are the same shade of blue.
“I have great respect for Sen. Sanders,” Hickenlooper said. “But I fundamentally disagree that we should do away with the democratic, regulated capitalism that has guided this country for over 200 years.”
The former Colorado governor, who has previously gone after Sanders for his views on socialism less directly, warned that if Democrats did not denounce socialism, they could hand President Donald Trump reelection in 2020.
“Democrats must say loudly and clearly that we are not socialists. If we do not, we will end up helping to reelect the worst President in our country’s history. Socialism is the most effective attack line Republicans can use against Democrats as long as Trump is at the top of the ticket,” Hickenlooper said.
Sanders then took to Twitter to respond to Hickenlooper’s speech, posting a clip from President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s 1936 speech at the New York Democratic State Convention, where Roosevelt warned against the “smooth evasion” of those who say they believe in helping people through socialist programs but do not follow through.
“Cross our hearts and hope to die. ‘We believe in all these things. But we do not like the way that the present administration is doing them,’ ” Roosevelt said of how critics of socialism will frame their argument.
” ‘Just turn them over to us. We will do all of them, we will do more of them, we will do them better and, most important of all, the doing of them will not cost anybody anything,’ ” Roosevelt said.
Hickenlooper’s speech was a direct response to Sanders – who predicted the exact argument Hickenlooper eventually made.
“Let me be clear. I do understand that I and other progressives will face massive attacks from those who attempt to use the socialism as a slur. But I should also tell you, that I have faced and overcome these attacks for decades and I am not the only one,” Sanders said at George Washington University on Wednesday.
Pointing to the attacks made against Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal and Harry Truman’s Medicare and Medicaid programs, Sanders argued that centrist Democrats and Republicans have consistently used the label of socialism as to attack government programs that help working class people.
Sanders even contended that Trump and big banks on Wall Street, two of the most likely opponents of socialism, have embraced socialist policies when it is convenient for them.
“When Trump screams socialism, all of his hypocrisy will not be lost on the American people,” Sanders said, “he believes in corporate socialism for the rich and powerful. I believe in a democratic socialism that works for the working families of this country.”
In the case of Wall Street, Sanders said that after the stock market crash in 2008, “Wall Street’s religious adherence to unfettered capitalism suddenly came to an end. Overnight Wall Street became big government socialists and begged for the largest federal bailout in American history.”
The divide between Sanders and Hickenlooper is more than just ideological — it can also be seen in popularity. Sanders is consistently in the upper echelon of Democratic presidential candidates, while Hickenlooper hovers around 1% support in most polls, and Sanders’ progressive policies have been embraced by a host of 2020 hopefuls who have most to the left in recent years. But there is a silver lining for Hickenlooper: Vice President Joe Biden has been appealing to moderates too, a sign that his campaign takes as proof that Hickenlooper’s brand of politics could get pick up.
In response to a question from CNN, Hickenlooper argued that while Sanders is higher in the polls, he sees space for a more moderate approach.
“My problem is not what I’m selling,” Hickenlooper told CNN. “It is how do I get that information to the buyer.”
But lesser-known Democratic candidates have seen value in attacking Sanders, hoping that doing so will vault them into contention.
The same strategy has been used by former Rep. John Delaney, another moderate candidate who has hammered Sanders in recent weeks.
“To his credit, Sanders has been consistent in his support for socialism and even, at times, communism,” Delaney said in a statement to CNN.
For Sanders, democratic socialism and a 21st century economic bill of rights, designed to finish what Roosevelt started decades earlier, is the only way to fix an economy that is “fundamentally broken, and grotesquely unfair” and prevent the “deeply rooted and seemingly intractable economic and social disparities” that emerged after the Great Depression in the 1930s and contributed to the rise of Nazi Germany.
Hickenlooper made clear on Thursday that he doesn’t disagree that the economy isn’t working for working people.
“For decades, economic policies have shifted to favor the wealthy and the powerful over those who work every day to get by,” Hickenlooper said. “Gains in income and wealth have gone almost entirely to the top 1% of Americans.”
“I understand that Americans are frustrated right now – that they are hungry for bold change. I understand that our young people, especially, see socialism as an attractive alternative to the political gridlock and economic recession they experienced during their formative years,” Hickenlooper said, the closest he came in acknowledging the perspective Sanders represents. “But it would be a grave mistake to abandon the American entrepreneurial spirit that has always been at our country’s core.”
Biden, the undisputed frontrunner in the 2020 race, has toyed with faulting Sanders view of politics, while complementing his commitment. Even still, Biden has been taking heat from the left of the party for not being progressive enough.
“Look, I just think we got a lot of really good candidates out there and they’re making their case and I don’t, I don’t put a whole lot in terms of labels,” Biden said on a recent trips to Iowa. “I’m not going to comment on Bernie’s characterization of who or what it is. He’s sincere about what he, what he thinks and I think he should go out and say it.”