Kelley Hawes column sig new

South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg made an important point during the latest round of Democratic presidential debates.

“It’s time to stop worrying about what the Republicans will say,” he said. “It’s true if we embrace a far-left agenda, they’re gonna say we’re a bunch of crazy socialists.”

They’ll say the same thing, he said, if the Democrats embrace a conservative agenda.

Almost immediately, Republican U.S. Sen. John Kennedy went on Fox News to prove the mayor’s point.

“I’m not buying the story line of progressive versus moderate,” he said. “I would remind you that the lesser of two socialists is still a socialist. Even from the less liberal candidates, I heard a job-killing, soul-crushing socialist agenda.”

Asked later whether he’d describe the stubbornly moderate John Delaney as a socialist, Kennedy said he would.

The strategy, of course, has been clear for months as the conservative echo chamber works to convince voters that those in the progressive wing are about to lead the Democratic Party over a cliff.

“The Democrat Party is now being led by four left-wing extremists who reject everything that we hold dear,” the president told supporters during a campaign rally in Cincinnati.

He’ll be hammering away at that narrative right up through the November election.

“The Democrats have never been so far outside the mainstream,” he told his Cincinnati audience.

Delaney, a former Maryland congressman, advocated a more moderate approach during his turn on stage at the Democratic debates.

“I think Democrats win when we run on real solutions, not impossible promises, when we run on things that are workable, not fairy tale economics,” he said.

Elizabeth Warren took exception to Delaney’s remarks, delivering one of the most memorable lines of either debate.

“I don’t understand why anybody goes to all the trouble of running for president of the United States just to talk about what we really can’t do and shouldn’t fight for,” she said. “I don’t get it.”

The fact is, though, that Buttigieg is right. Whatever candidate emerges as the Democratic nominee will be cast as a socialist by the president and his supporters.

“So let’s just stand up for the right policy, go out there and defend it,” Buttigieg said.

He was talking specifically about health care, but the statement applies regardless of the issue.

The task facing Democrats is to stake out clear positions and then to sell those positions to voters.

The policies that ultimately emerge likely won’t be precisely what any of the candidates have voiced so far. The goal of a primary election campaign, after all, is to take the best ideas from all of the candidates and choose the one candidate who has the best chance of carrying those ideas to victory in the fall.

The platform that emerges won’t win over everyone. Guys like Kennedy will continue to think that every position the Democratic Party might take will amount to socialism.

But there is a receptive audience out there ready to embrace policy positions aimed at addressing the important challenges facing our country.

In the meantime, presidential hopeful Cory Booker had an important reminder for his fellow Democrats as they sparred over the best way to achieve a goal they all shared.

“The person enjoying this debate the most is Donald Trump,” he said. “As we pick each other apart, Republicans are trying to gut Obamacare.”

In the heat of battle, it’s easy to forget that all of these candidates are really on the same side. They have one overriding goal: To defeat Donald J. Trump.

It’s critical that all of them remember that in the days and months ahead.

Kelly Hawes is a columnist for CNHI News Indiana. He can be reached at