Paul Krugman: Bernie Sanders isn’t a socialist. Saying he is hurts his campaign.

(Pablo Martinez Monsivais | AP) Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., greets supporters at a primary night election rally in Manchester, N.H., Tuesday, Feb. 11, 2020.

Republicans have a long, disreputable history of conflating any attempt to improve American lives with the evils of “socialism.” When Medicare was first proposed, Ronald Reagan called it “socialized medicine,” and he declared that it would destroy our freedom. These days, if you call for something like universal child care, conservatives accuse you of wanting to turn America into the Soviet Union.

It’s a smarmy, dishonest political strategy, but it’s hard to deny that it has sometimes been effective. And now the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination — not an overwhelming front-runner, but clearly the person most likely at the moment to come out on top — is someone who plays right into that strategy, by declaring that he is indeed a socialist.

The thing is, Bernie Sanders isn’t actually a socialist in any normal sense of the term. He doesn’t want to nationalize our major industries and replace markets with central planning; he has expressed admiration, not for Venezuela, but for Denmark. He’s basically what Europeans would call a social democrat — and social democracies like Denmark are, in fact, quite nice places to live, with societies that are, if anything, freer than our own.

So why does Sanders call himself a socialist? I’d say that it’s mainly about personal branding, with a dash of glee at shocking the bourgeoisie. And this self-indulgence did no harm as long as he was just a senator from a very liberal state.

But if Sanders becomes the Democratic presidential nominee, his misleading self-description will be a gift to the Trump campaign. So will his policy proposals. Single-payer health care is (a) a good idea in principle and (b) very unlikely to happen in practice, but by making “Medicare for All” the centerpiece of his campaign, Sanders would take the focus off the Trump administration’s determination to take away the social safety net we already have.

Just to be clear, if Sanders is indeed the nominee, the Democratic Party should give him its wholehearted support. He probably couldn’t turn America into Denmark, and even if he could, President Donald Trump is trying to turn us into a white nationalist autocracy like Hungary. Which would you prefer?

But I do wish that Sanders weren’t so determined to make himself an easy target for right-wing smears.

Speaking of unhelpful political posturing, the runner-up in New Hampshire has also been poisoning his own well. Over the past few days Pete Buttigieg has chosen to pose as a deficit hawk, thereby demonstrating that while he may be a fresh face, he has remarkably stale ideas.

Maybe Buttigieg is unaware of the growing consensus among mainstream economists that the deficit hysteria of seven or eight years ago was greatly overblown. Last year the former top economists in the Obama administration published an article titled “Who’s Afraid of Budget Deficits?” which concluded, “It’s time for Washington to put away its debt obsession and focus on bigger things.”

And where Sanders is playing right into one disreputable Republican political strategy, Buttigieg is playing into another: the strategy of hobbling the economy with fiscal austerity when a Democrat occupies the White House, then borrowing freely as soon as the GOP regains power. If Democrats win, they should pursue a progressive agenda, not waste political capital cleaning up the GOP’s mess.

Again, if Buttigieg somehow becomes the nominee, the party should back him without reservation. Whatever he may say about deficits, he wouldn’t do what Republicans do: use debt fears as an excuse to slash social programs.

So who will the Democrats nominate? Your guess is as good as mine. What’s really important, however, is that the party stays focused on its strengths and Trump’s weaknesses.

For the fact is that all of the Democrats who would be president, from Bloomberg to Bernie, are at least moderately progressive; they all want to maintain and expand the social safety net, while raising taxes on the wealthy. And all the polling evidence says that America is basically a center-left nation — which is why Trump promised to raise taxes on the rich and protect major social programs during the 2016 campaign.

But he was lying, and at this point everyone with an open mind knows it. So Democrats have a perfect opportunity to portray themselves, truthfully, as the defenders of Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and the now-popular Affordable Care Act against Republicans who are more or less nakedly favoring the interests of plutocrats over those of working families.

This opportunity will, however, be squandered if the Democratic nominee, whoever he or she is, turns the election into a referendum on either single-payer health care or deficit reduction, neither of which is an especially popular position. Things will be even worse if the Democrats themselves degenerate into squabbles over either ideological purity or fiscal probity.

The point is that whoever gets the nomination, Democrats need to build as broad a coalition as possible. Otherwise they’ll be handing the election to Trump — and that would be a tragedy for the party, the nation and the world.

Paul Krugman

Paul Krugman, Ph.D, winner of the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics, in an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.