Republicans have been hammering Democrats with 'socialism' smears for years. Now Democrats have a chance to turn these ridiculous claims into an advantage.

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  • Republicans have been calling Democrats "socialists" for decades.

  • The attack has always been in bad faith, distorting what Democrats actually believe.

  • But by following through on policy, the Democrats have a chance to flip the attack on its head.

  • Michael Gordon is a longtime Democratic strategist, a former spokesman for the Justice Department, and the principal for the strategic-communications firm Group Gordon.

  • This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.

  • See more stories on Insider's business page.

Pete Buttigieg, while on the campaign trail in 2019 as a Democratic presidential candidate, had a saying that the GOP will call Democrats "crazy socialists" no matter what policies they promote.

In the first six months of the Biden presidency, the Buttigieg (now Biden's Transportation Secretary) prediction could not have been more correct. Republicans have called the broadly popular infrastructure plan a five-lane highway to socialism. They're gearing up for a midterm message that will label every Democratic policy, no matter how common sense, as part of the so-called "socialist agenda."

Perhaps they think that because their congressional candidates did better than expected in 2020 (Kevin McCarthy called the results a "mandate against socialism"), this messaging will continue to work. But if Democrats are smart, they'll turn this attack around and use it to their advantage.

Big tent

On its face, the GOP claim that Democrats are a socialist party is absurd. While the Republican party has become a cult of personality built around Donald Trump, the Democrats truly are a big tent party built on a range of people and ideologies. More left and more moderate Democrats work together to pass legislation that benefits Americans, like the child tax credits that recently went out.

In fact, since the beginning of the 2020 campaign, many top tier Democratic primaries have been won by more moderate Democrats. Joe Biden won the 2020 Democratic nomination handily, and then the general election, running on a moderate message. But the string of victories for Democratic moderates doesn't end there.

Terry McAuliffe, a moderate former Governor of Virginia, cruised to victory in the Democratic primary for a chance at a second term of office. His victory was noted by many as a win for the establishment wing of the party.

And in the hotly-contested New York City Democratic mayoral primary, Eric Adams, a Republican-turned-Democrat and one of the most moderate candidates in the race, beat out many challengers to his left for the nomination. Maya Wiley, who was endorsed by many of the more progressive members of the party, finished in third.

Clearly, the people who show up to vote in Democratic primaries - and by extension their chosen candidates - are not socialist. But that's not stopping the GOP from using it as a powerful attack. The Republicans will use it not because it's true but because they think it's effective. Moderate Congressmen from Max Rose in New York to Harley Rouda in California went down in 2020 in the shadow of false socialism claims against all Democrats.

Democrats have been on the run from the GOP's 'socialist' branding - but now's their time to fight back.

Turning the tables

If Democrats want to get serious about beating the phony 'socialism' charge, they need to head it off. Joe Biden has already been doing that: recently, he made the case that the Democrats' version of capitalism is superior to the GOP's. He touts the record growth and record job creation of his presidency so far as evidence that the Democrats are the party that really knows how to run the economy, whether or not the GOP calls them socialist.

Indeed, the best way for the Democrats to counter attacks calling them socialists is improving American lives. Liberals and conservatives alike expect the government to help make their lives easier and better. Take Obamacare: Republicans spent the better part of a decade bashing it as socialism, but now it has some of its highest popularity ever. The stimulus checks were also called socialism, but a whopping 78% of Americans, including a healthy majority of Republicans, support them.

The Democrats should pass the litany of other popular bills that they are holding out on because they might be accused of socialism. Mitch McConnell has called the infrastructure package a "socialist experiment," but it remains broadly popular among the American public. If Democrats want to de-fang nonsense attacks from the GOP, Joe Biden, Nancy Pelosi, and Chuck Schumer should ensure the infrastructure package gets passed.

And while they're at it they should mock the socialist claim. Laugh at it. "We're not socialists. We just care about people, and they're the grim reapers of progress." Or come up with their own phrase that replaces socialism - like Sen. Elizabeth Warren's accountable capitalism. Or maybe we craft something better right here, right now: compassionate capitalism.

Make sure the government is helping people when times get tough, as the Democrats have during the pandemic. Then all of the lies about the Democratic party being socialist will be overwhelmed by the acclaim they receive for being the party that actually gets it done.

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