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Why Sanders and Clinton are fighting over the word 'progressive'

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Mic Smith/AP

(Read caption) Democratic presidential candidates, Hillary Clinton (left) and Senator Bernie Sanders (right) talk over each other during a primary debate at the Gaillard Center in Charleston, S.C. Jan. 17, 2016.

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As they get ready for their first one-on-one debate Thursday night in New Hampshire, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders are fighting about which one of them best embodies the word “progressive.”

Senator Sanders began this tussle over the nature of political identity on Wednesday by saying Mrs. Clinton “just wasn’t a progressive” on a host of issues, while campaigning in the Granite State. As a senator she’d voted to authorize the Iraq War, he pointed out – hardly an example of left-leaning values. The Vermont senator and avowed democratic socialist also pointed out that Clinton has taken lots of campaign money from Wall Street and has a super PAC, two things of which he’s never been accused.

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Clinton during her own campaign stops responded that Sanders isn’t a “gatekeeper” on who can claim the “P” label. She’s a “progressive who gets things done” she argued – better poised to actually implement her agenda if elected president.

Why are they tussling over nomenclature? One reason might be because the Democratic Party has shifted left in recent years and Clinton, as well as Sanders, needs to pay attention to that end of the ideological spectrum.

Fully 47 percent of Democrats identify as socially liberal and economically liberal or moderate, according to Gallup Poll data. That’s an increase of 8 percentage points since Barack Obama ran for his first term in 2008, and an increase of 17 percentage points since 2001.

There are still plenty of across-the-board moderates, and even a few self-described conservatives, in Democratic ranks. But “Democratic candidates for the 2016 presidential nomination face a significantly more left-leaning party base than their predecessors did over the last 15 years,” wrote Gallup editor-in-chief Frank Newport last June.

And the word “progressive” remains a better choice for a Democratic presidential aspirant than “liberal,” given the attitudes of the US electorate as a whole.

The context in which Sanders and Clinton are discussing the word makes clear they view it as close to a synonym for “liberal.” Sanders’s single-payer health care plan and proposal to make college free are things that would have been called liberal in decades past.

But the overall US reaction to “progressive” is far more positive than to the word “liberal,” though the data here is a few years old. Sixty-seven percent of Americans view “progressive” as a positive term, Pew Research found in 2011. Only 50 percent said the same thing about “liberal.”

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Interestingly, Democrats were equally positive about both labels. The difference was almost entirely among Republicans. A 55 percent majority of GOP respondents approved of “progressive,” while 70 percent of Republicans had a negative response to the “L” word.

Thus it’s possible a Democrat could boast of being progressive without offending many Republicans. But a socialist? Probably not. The Pew data showed 60 percent of Americans giving a thumbs-down to “socialism.”

Of course, Sanders talks about European-style democratic socialism, and not socialism in the sense of the state owning the means of production.

“I’m sure GOP attack ads will take that distinction into careful consideration,” writes David Roberts at Vox, tongue firmly in cheek, in a piece on what a Republican general election strategy against Sanders might look like.