WASHINGTON — Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont offered a vigorous defense of the democratic socialism that has defined his five decades in political life on Wednesday, while tying his presidential campaign to the legacies of Franklin D. Roosevelt and Martin Luther King Jr.
Sliding in public polling and seeking to seize attention in a sprawling Democratic primary field, Mr. Sanders cast himself at times in direct competition with President Trump, contrasting his own collectivist views against what he called the “corporate socialism” practiced by the president and the Republican Party.
And Mr. Sanders, 77, declared that his version of socialism was a political winner, having lifted Mr. Roosevelt to victory four times and powered his own career in government.
“Today in the second decade of the 21st century, we must take up the unfinished business of the New Deal and carry it to completion,” Mr. Sanders said.
The issue of socialism has taken on outsize importance for a party being pulled to the left by an energized wing of progressives seeking transformational change. Mr. Trump has repeatedly called Mr. Sanders “crazy” and extrapolated the socialist label to all Democrats. He and other Republicans have seized on proposals like “Medicare for all” to portray Democrats as far out of the mainstream, signaling clearly that it will be a major line of attack in the general election.
Speaking in a small theater on the campus of George Washington University, Mr. Sanders struck back at these negative characterizations.
“Let me be clear, I do understand that I and other progressives will face massive attacks from those who attempt to use the word ‘socialism’ as a slur,” he said, “but I should also tell you that I have faced and overcome these attacks for decades, and I am not the only one.”
[It seems as if there are as many definitions of democratic socialism as there are democratic socialists. Here’s an overview.]
Mr. Sanders — an independent who has not joined the Democratic Party but is making his second bid for its presidential nomination — presented his vision of democratic socialism not as a set of extreme principles but as a pathway to “economic rights,” invoking the accomplishments of Roosevelt and King. He argued that his ideology is embodied by longstanding popular programs, including Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, that Republicans have labeled socialist.