(Photo by Gerald Herbert of The Associated Press/ Democratic presidential candidate, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, speaks at a campaign event in Durham, North Carolina on Friday, Feb. 14, 2020.

Republicans have a long, disreputable history of conflating any attempt to improve American lives with the evils of "socialism." When Medicare was first proposed, Ronald Reagan called it "socialized medicine," and he declared that it would destroy our freedom. These days, if you call for something like universal child care, conservatives accuse you of wanting to turn America into the Soviet Union.

It's a smarmy, dishonest political strategy, but it's hard to deny that it has sometimes been effective. And now the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination — not an overwhelming front-runner, but clearly the person most likely at the moment to come out on top — is someone who plays right into that strategy, by declaring that he is indeed a socialist.

The thing is, Bernie Sanders isn't actually a socialist in any normal sense of the term. He doesn't want to nationalize our major industries and replace markets with central planning; he has expressed admiration, not for Venezuela, but for Denmark. He's basically what Europeans would call a social democrat — and social democracies like Denmark are, in fact, quite nice places to live, with societies that are, if anything, freer than our own.

So why does Sanders call himself a socialist? I'd say that it's mainly about personal branding, with a dash of glee at shocking the bourgeoisie. And this self-indulgence did no harm as long as he was just a senator from a very liberal state.

But if Sanders becomes the Democratic presidential nominee, his misleading self-description will be a gift to the Trump campaign. So will his policy proposals. Single-payer health care is (a) a good idea in principle and (b) very unlikely to happen in practice.

Just to be clear, if Sanders is indeed the nominee, the Democratic Party should give him its wholehearted support. He probably couldn't turn America into Denmark, and even if he could, President Donald Trump is trying to turn us into a white nationalist autocracy like Hungary. Which would you prefer?

But I do wish that Sanders weren't so determined to make himself an easy target for right-wing smears.

Speaking of unhelpful political posturing, the runner-up in New Hampshire has also been poisoning his own well. Over the past few days Pete Buttigieg has chosen to pose as a deficit hawk, thereby demonstrating that while he may be a fresh face, he has remarkably stale ideas.

Maybe Buttigieg is unaware of the growing consensus among mainstream economists that the deficit hysteria of seven or eight years ago was greatly overblown.

And where Sanders is playing right into one disreputable Republican political strategy, Buttigieg is playing into another: the strategy of hobbling the economy with fiscal austerity when a Democrat occupies the White House, then borrowing freely as soon as the GOP regains power.

Again, if Buttigieg somehow becomes the nominee, the party should back him without reservation.

So who will the Democrats nominate? Your guess is as good as mine. What's really important, however, is that the party stays focused on its strengths and Trump's weaknesses.

For the fact is that all of the Democrats who would be president, from Bloomberg to Bernie, are at least moderately progressive; they all want to maintain and expand the social safety net, while raising taxes on the wealthy.

Democrats have a perfect opportunity to portray themselves, truthfully, as the defenders of Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and the now-popular Affordable Care Act against Republicans who are more or less nakedly favoring the interests of plutocrats over those of working families.

This opportunity will, however, be squandered if the Democratic nominee, whoever he or she is, turns the election into a referendum on either single-payer health care or deficit reduction, neither of which is an especially popular position.

Whoever gets the nomination, Democrats need to build as broad a coalition as possible. Otherwise they'll be handing the election to Trump — and that would be a tragedy for the party, the nation and the world.

The New York Times