Conservative activists are all in on President Trump’s plan to paint Democrats as wild-eyed socialists in the 2020 presidential election, saying that stopping the agenda of Sen. Bernard Sanders and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is a top priority.
From the stage at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Oxon Hill, Maryland, Thursday, Republican members of Congress, Trump administration officials and right-wing leaders said there’s a reason for Republican voters to be afraid.
One speaker told the attendees that Ms. Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal would mean the end of hamburgers, since cattle’s flatulence increases levels of methane, a greenhouse gas. The freshman congresswoman has pushed back against those claims, but they’ve stuck.
“This is what Stalin dreamt about but never achieved,” said Sebastian Gorka, former deputy assistant to the president.
The White House’s team said it is most concerned about what Democrats would do to the economy if universal healthcare, tuition-free college and free child care were implemented.
“I don’t want us to stand idly by. I don’t want to let this stuff fester. I want it challenged. I want it debated. I want it rebutted, and I want it convicted,” said Larry Kudlow, director of Mr. Trump’s National Economic Council.
Mr. Trump test-drove his attacks on socialism in his Feb. 5 State of the Union address, getting most of Congress to stand and applaud his vow that the U.S. will never embrace the philosophy that fueled the nation’s enemies throughout the Cold War.
It’s not clear whether the attacks on “socialism” will resonate in the abstract, so conservatives have labored to make the issue concrete, saying the same principles that invigorate America’s left-wing have left chaos in places they have been tried, such as Venezuela.
Mr. Kudlow said demands for massive “fair share” tax increases on the ultra-wealthy are illusory, saying the rich already pay more than half of the individual income tax burden, while those at the bottom pay pennies on the dollar.
But the economy could shed 10 percent of the gross domestic product if progressives’ plans were implemented, he said.
“It’s never worked,” he said. “The old Soviet Union proved it won’t work, and it can’t work nowadays. Venezuela is proving it again as though we had forgotten.”
CPAC’s first day was full of speeches serving up conservative red meat. Trump Cabinet secretaries demanded faster confirmation of the president’s nominees in the Senate, with Energy Secretary Rick Perry and Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao saying they have had to slow their work because they don’t have a full contingent of appointees.
Ms. Chao’s husband, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, is laying the groundwork for a rules change that could speed up confirmations.
She also defended the administration’s decision to halt payment of nearly $1 billion in money to California’s high-speed rail project and to try to claw back $2.5 billion already shipped to the state.
Gov. Gavin Newsom has vowed to fight that move, but Ms. Chao said the state was given the cash with the understanding it was building a statewide rail line, not the abbreviated version Mr. Newsom now says is in the cards.
“This is a classic example of bait-and-switch,” she said.
Heavy policy debates were the exception throughout the day, though, with most activists more interested in the clash of philosophies within the Democratic Party and the GOP.
Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel said other Republicans are free to challenge Mr. Trump in the 2020 GOP primary, but they won’t get far.
“They have the right to jump in and lose,” Ms. McDaniel said.
She also said conservatives shouldn’t fear the 2020 Democratic candidates, but said they should be watching Ms. Ocasio-Cortez and her democratic socialist ideas.
“We can’t take her for granted,” Ms. McDaniel said. “We can’t think that the American people understand what socialism is. We have to go out and educate.”
Ms. Ocasio-Cortez, who isn’t old enough to run for president, easily surpassed House Speaker Nancy Pelosi as the most-mentioned Democrat at the conference.
House Freedom Caucus Chairman Rep. Mark Meadows, North Carolina Republican, said Ms. Ocasio-Cortez attempted a distorted socialist experiment in her own congressional office by boosting lower level staffers’ pay without cutting her own salary.
“Real socialism doesn’t just take the money we pay to employees and compress it. It actually would take her salary and compress it,” Mr. Meadows said.
Lisa Ritchie, who traveled to the conference from Witchita, Kansas, said Ms. Ocasio-Cortez’s ideas are a serious electoral issue.
“I totally think it’s a real prevalent threat,” she said, referring to socialism.
But Jacqueline Fowler, who is new to Washington, said Ms. Ocasio-Cortez is not the Democratic mainstream.