This week Hillary Clinton became the second prominent Democrat to refuse to answer the question, "What's the difference between a socialist and a Democrat?"
In July MSNBC host Chris Matthews stumped Democratic national chair Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL) with the question. Asked three times, Wasserman Schultz first looked blank, then evaded: "The relevant debate that we'll be having this campaign is what's the difference between a Democrat and a Republican....The difference between a Democrat and Republican is that Democrats fight to make sure everybody has an opportunity to succeed and the Republicans are strangled by their right-wing extremists."
On Tuesday Matthews asked Clinton the same question. Clinton could see it coming, and she did say of socialism, "I'm not one." But pressed to explain "What's the difference between a socialist and a Democrat?" she too retreated to boilerplate:
I can tell you what I am, I am a progressive Democrat … who likes to get things done. And who believes that we’re better off in this country when we’re trying to solve problems together. Getting people to work together. There will always be strong feelings and I respect that, from, you know, the far right, the far left, libertarians, whoever it might be, we need to get people working together.
Hey, thanks for the "libertarians" plug, Madam Secretary! But seriously, why is this a hard question? Here's a clear answer:
"Socialists believe in government ownership of the means of production, and Democrats don't."
Would that be a true statement? If so, why don't Clinton and Wasserman Schultz just say it?
One possibility, of course, is that they don't actually think there's much difference between Democrats and socialists. Clinton, after all, voted with taxpayers only 9 percent of the time as a senator, according to the National Taxpayers Union. She calls herself a “government junkie.” She says, “There is no such thing as other people’s children," a strikingly collectivist thought. She tried to nationalize health care long before President Obama. Voters could be forgiven for seeing a socialist lurking there. But Clinton has never called for mass nationalization of the Soviet or even the British Labour variety.
Maybe Clinton and Wasserman Schultz see socialism as a beautiful dream that simply can't be achieved with the current American electorate. Take a look at Clinton's answer to Matthews: "I am a progressive Democrat … who likes to get things done." That reminded me of her comment in 2008 when she was running against Barack Obama: “Dr. King’s dream began to be realized when President Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act. It took a president to get it done.” Perhaps in that case and the current one she's saying that speeches are fine, but she's the candidate prepared to dig in and do the hard work to "get things done" -- the things that King and Obama only talked about, the things that Bernie Sanders gives speeches about, maybe even the things that socialists aspire to do. In 2008 she also explained that she had never supported a single-payer health care system -- medical socialism -- because "we had to do what would appeal to and actually coincide with what the body politic will and political coalition building was." That's a rejection on political grounds, not on the basis of economics, political philosophy, or an understanding of the failures of socialism.
My guess is that politics is driving Wasserman Schultz's and especially Clinton's evasion on the question of socialism. This week we've seen repeated charges in the mainstream media that Republican presidential candidates were treading cautiously on the issue of the takeover of a federal building in Oregon -- or even "flirting with extremists" -- because they don't want to offend voters who are angry at federal land ownership or at federal overreach more generally. Democrats also have base voters, and extreme factions, and voters who might stay home or vote for Ralph Nader if they feel disrespected. Apparently Wasserman Schultz and Clinton think enough Democratic voters to worry about are sympathetic to socialism. They may be right. Although most Americans say they wouldn't vote for a socialist, a majority of Democrats report favorable views of socialism. Clinton doesn't want to diss those voters.
And that seems like something that journalists other than Chris Matthews ought to ask about. Let's see some articles about the refusal of arguably the two most important leaders of the Democratic party (other than President Obama) to state that Democrats are not socialists.