MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
The next presidential election is more than 500 days away, but battle lines are already being drawn. And there's a disconnect between how the president and Democrats are framing the debate. Donald Trump wants the campaign to be about socialism. The Democrats want it to be about capitalism, as NPR's Mara Liasson reports.
MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Donald Trump's message is pretty simple.
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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: The new Democrat Party believes in socialism. Take a look at Venezuela.
LIASSON: For all of Trump's norm-busting behavior, on this, one he's following right in the footsteps of generations of Republican politicians.
KEVIN KRUSE: What Trump is doing actually fits into a very long tradition in American conservatism of likening anything that happens to the left of where conservatism is in that moment as socialism.
LIASSON: That's Princeton University historian Kevin Kruse.
KRUSE: You look back over the history of 20th century politics, things like the polio vaccine that were supposed to be given away for free was denounced as socialism by the back door. The Interstate Highway System was announced by the far-right as socialism - the Civil Rights Act. Medicare, Medicaid - these were all denounced as socialism.
LIASSON: And Social Security, of course, was attacked as the ultimate socialist plot. That's been the frame every time there was a push to expand the social safety net, and this time is no different.
NEERA TANDEN: I see a debate about how to make capitalism work, not a mass adoption of socialism.
LIASSON: Neera Tanden is the president of the liberal think tank Center for American Progress.
TANDEN: We have inequality at levels we haven't seen in a hundred years matched with wages that are coming up but have been stagnant for many, many years. And there's a part of capitalism that seems out of whack.
LIASSON: One of the leading Democratic candidates, Bernie Sanders, is advocating a classic socialist move - a government takeover of the private health insurance industry. But the other candidates say what they want is to regulate capitalism so that it generates broadly shared prosperity and economic mobility. And with the exception of Sanders, they all insist they are not socialists.
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ELIZABETH WARREN: I believe in markets, markets that work, markets that have a cop on the beat and have real rules and everybody follows them.
PETE BUTTIGIEG: I believe in democratic capitalism.
CORY BOOKER: I'm a capitalist. Monopolies are not capitalism.
LIASSON: Democrats have a long list of proposals, including antitrust enforcement, a public option added to Obamacare, a higher minimum wage, a 2% wealth tax on people worth over $50 million, and plans to help middle-class families afford college, child care and retirement - the kind of restraints on free-market capitalism that America has been debating and sometimes enacting for a hundred years. As a matter of fact, says Republican strategist Bruce Mehlman, the corporate leaders he advises are talking about the same basic question - how to make capitalism work the way it's supposed to.
BRUCE MEHLMAN: I spend a lot of time working with businesses and entrepreneurs. And the long-term challenges for the most successful capitalists in the world are making sure the capitalist system remains effective, remains inclusive and remains demonstrably better than alternatives.
LIASSON: Mehlman says when he listens to the Democrats, he hears this...
MEHLMAN: Bernie and AOC and some others aggressively suggesting that capitalism's time has ended, but the bulk of the party and certainly the bulk of the voters are looking for ways to improve the system - as was done in the Gilded Age, as was done around the Great Depression - to have a more inclusive growth.
LIASSON: Back in 2016, even Donald Trump sometimes sounded like he was talking about this, like on the very first day of his campaign, when he rode down the escalator at Trump Tower and said...
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TRUMP: Sadly, the American dream is dead.
TANDEN: One of the great ironies of what's happened is that the national numbers in the economy were pretty positive in 2015 and 2016. And candidate Trump really focused in on stagnant wages, particularly for people who didn't have a college degree.
LIASSON: Democrats like Tanden acknowledge that Trump painted a picture that resonated with some voters. American capitalism wasn't delivering the American dream for enough people. But then, Democrats say, Trump offered the wrong answer to the right question - attacking immigrants, starting a trade war and cutting taxes mostly for the wealthy. Democrats say they have better solutions to make sure the system provides more growth, broadly shared.
TANDEN: The person who is a Democratic nominee is going to have to demonstrate that he or she will be good stewards of the economy and produce better results for more people.
LIASSON: And they'll have to defend their plans to save capitalism from itself while being attacked as Venezuelan-style socialists. Mara Liasson, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.