WASHINGTON - Bernie Sanders calls himself a democratic socialist. A lot of voters call that unacceptable, so Thursday, he offered a passionate explanation of why he wears that label, saying he's carrying on the legacy of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson and Martin Luther King Jr.
Sanders, a U.S. senator from Vermont who trails Hillary Clinton in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination, faces deep skepticism over his political brand. Half of the voters in the latest McClatchy-Marist poll, for example, say they definitely would vote against a socialist.
If the word conjures images of communists and the Soviet Union, Sanders insisted his democratic socialism is a vibrant American tradition.
His program, he said, "builds on what Franklin Delano Roosevelt said when he fought for guaranteed economic rights for all Americans. And it builds on what Martin Luther King Jr. said in 1968 when he stated that ‘this country has socialism for the rich, and rugged individualism for the poor.'"
Remember, Sanders said of FDR during a speech at Georgetown University, "Almost everything he proposed was called socialist."
Sanders recalled the New Deal, which Roosevelt crafted to revive the nation's economy and spirit during the Great Depression of the 1930s. Social Security, unemployment insurance, abolishing child labor, strong financial institution regulations and other programs that put millions to work were all regarded as socialist in their time, Sanders said.
"Yet, these programs have become the fabric of our nation and the foundation of the middle class," he said.
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Sanders needs a political boost. He surged this summer and fall as the chief alternative to Clinton but remains far behind. The latest McClatchy-Marist poll had Clinton up 22 percentage points nationally, about the same margin as in Iowa, the nation's first caucus state.
Sanders has tried recently to draw more contrast with Clinton, but he largely refrained Thursday. "I'm not running for president because it is my turn," he said, "but because it's the turn of all of us to live in a nation of hope and opportunity not for some, not for the few, but for all."
He instead came to an audience enthusiastic to hear him. Some began lining up for the midafternoon speech before dawn.
Sanders offered both history lessons and specific policy proposals. When President Lyndon Johnson signed into law legislation creating Medicare and Medicaid in 1965, his initiatives were "derided by the right wing as socialist programs that were a threat to our American way of life."
Since then, even as government's role in trying to eradicate poverty and end discrimination grew and became more accepted, "tens of millions of American families continue today to lack the basic necessities of life, while millions more struggle every day to provide a minimal standard of living for their families," Sanders said.
The fault lies with both parties, he said. "For the last 40 years," the senator charged, "under Republican leadership and Democratic leadership, the great middle class of this country has been in decline and faith in our political system is now extremely low."
The solution is to create a culture "which, as Pope Francis reminds us, cannot just be based on the worship of money."