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Socialism: The 2020 campaign's early battle line

U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, signs a
U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, signs a "Make America Great Again" hat for a supporter Saturday, June 15, 2019, during Ernst's annual "Roast and Ride" fundraiser at the Central Iowa Expo in Boone. Photo by Erin Murphy.

The battle line has been drawn.

Do you, fair Iowa voter, want socialism or not?

It’s early in the 2020 campaign cycle, and yet it is already quite clear that Republican candidates feel they can win over voters with messaging against socialism.

President Donald Trump warned against it in his re-election kickoff rally last week in Florida. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell called himself “the grim reaper of the Democratic socialist agenda,” and is so fired up about it he somehow included calls for Washington, D.C., statehood under socialism’s apparently ever-growing umbrella.

U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst used the term several times during her campaign kickoff at her annual Roast and Ride fundraiser last weekend in Boone. During an interview the day before the event, Ernst said she will tell voters the choice in Iowa’s U.S. Senate election will be between socialism and freedom.

Will that message resonate with Iowa voters? Is it a political red-meat message to fire up the base? How will it play with more casual voters in a general election?

The answers to those questions remain to be seen over the coming months.

Meantime, the messaging will get some pushback. For example, some of the most popular federal government programs — Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid — could be described as socialist. Do Republicans who decry socialism also want to do away with those programs?

Or, as a small Twitter mob recently pointed out to me, angrily but accurately, what about government subsidies for farmers and businesses? Those could be described as socialist. Do Republicans who warn of the dangers of socialism also want those subsidies eliminated?

Turnabout questions are fair play here, too. Proposals like universal health care and tuition-free college come with a hefty price tag, and candidates should have to show their math. How would candidates pay for those programs? How would they upset existing markets? (For example, how would tuition-free college effect private colleges?)

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And there’s the question of whether we’re even all on the same page as to what socialism is exactly. McConnell already showed a willingness to stretch the term’s boundaries.

Here’s what it really means, according to our good friends Merriam and Webster: “Any of various economic and political theories advocating collective or governmental ownership and administration of the means of production and distribution of goods.”

As so often happens in politics, this all boils down to a simplified political argument whose nuance should be explored.

It’s also interesting to see how Democrats are responding to Republican attacks on socialism.

Some, like Bernie Sanders, are defending so-called socialist policies. They say Republicans are turning the word into a scare term when many Americans actually support those policies.

Others, like John Hickenlooper and John Delaney, are warning Democrats that they should not be embracing the term socialism.

So socialism is on the march ... at least on the 2020 campaign trail. Expect to hear that word often, Iowa voter. Here’s hoping you hear it with a discerning ear.

Erin Murphy covers Iowa politics and government. His email address is erin.murphy@lee.net. Follow him on Twitter at @ErinDMurphy.

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