As the new Congress convened earlier this year, featuring a freshmen class of progressives, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell vowed to do all he could to thwart Democratic proposals that made it to the Senate. Things like the Green New Deal and Medicare For All “won’t even be voted on,” he promised. “So think of me as the Grim Reaper: The guy who is going to make sure that socialism doesn’t land on the president’s desk.” Looking at the bills he’s recently axed in the Senate, however, one has to wonder exactly how broad his definition of “socialism” might be. Is a bill granting $1 billion for election security, that will reportedly never reach the Senate floor for a vote thanks to McConnell, an example of socialism? Is picking a fight with Jon Stewart over the 9/11 first responders’ fund a stand against socialism?
On Monday, McConnell offered a rare glimpse at the inner workings of his brain during an interview on The Ingraham Angle, in which he excoriated the new push to grant statehood to Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C. “They plan to make the District of Columbia a state—that’d give them two new Democratic senators—Puerto Rico a state, that would give them two more new Democratic senators. And as a former Supreme Court clerk yourself, you’ve surely noticed that they plan to expand the Supreme Court,” he told Laura Ingraham. “So this is full bore socialism on the march in the House. And yeah, as long as I’m the majority leader of the Senate, none of that stuff is going anywhere.” (To emphasize his point, he later tweeted a clip from the interview, mocking his Democrat counterpart in the caption. “For the first time in my memory, I actually agree with Nancy Pelosi: I am the grim reaper when it comes to stopping the Democrats’ socialist agenda.”)
It’s true that some Democrats, including Pete Buttigieg, are talking about packing the Supreme Court, and statehood for D.C. has been a long-standing progressive rallying cry. But it’s hard to see how either has anything to do with “socialism,” unless you presume that every action that increases Democratic political power is merely a stepping stone to seizing the means of production. Even Bernie Sanders, the only Democratic presidential candidate to defend socialism, has expressed no interest in nationalizing any industry beyond health care. By this logic, anything that helps Democrats—reversing racial gerrymandering, blocking a citizenship question on the 2020 Census—qualifies as “full bore socialism on the march.”
But of course, Republican messaging on “socialism” doesn’t need to make sense. On statehood for Puerto Rico, McConnell deliberately avoided the awkward fact that in 2016, the Republican Party fully supported admitting Puerto Rico as a state in their official party platform, and that, even now, bipartisan efforts are underway to move the issue forward. Puerto Rico’s delegate to Congress, Jenniffer González, is a Republican and a staunch Trump supporter. Indeed, every Republican president since Reagan has supported Puerto Rican statehood, citing the commonwealth’s reliably Republican leadership and socially conservative population. (As Kyle Sammin pointed out at National Review, Puerto Rico’s hypothetical delegates to the Senate would likely be Republican as well.) Even Trump wanted Puerto Rican statehood back in 2016, including the subject in his platform and saying he would support “the will of the Puerto Rican people in any status referendum should be considered as Congress follows through on any desired change in status for Puerto Rico, including statehood.”
Since then, however, the culture wars have gotten dumber, and cruder. The president changed his tune in 2018, saying that he was an “absolute no” on the question. (“With the mayor of San Juan as bad as she is and as incompetent as she is, Puerto Rico shouldn’t be talking about statehood until they get some people that really know what they’re doing,” he said.) At the same time, “socialism” has become a useful bogeyman for the Republican Party as it seeks to discredit Democratic economic policies that could give Trump’s phony populism a run for its money. During his State of the Union address back in February, Trump declared that “America will never be a socialist country,” in what was seen as a repudiation of progressive politicians like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and policies like the Green New Deal, which one GOP congressman called a “socialist fever dream.” But if McConnell’s interview on Fox is any guide, the term “socialist” needn’t be reserved for specific policies or defined principles. Is statehood for Puerto Rico “socialist”? That depends on whether it’s something Trump doesn’t like.
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