Mike Pence CPAC

Not long ago, conservatives sounded hyperbolic when using the S-word — “socialist” — to besmirch Democrats and their platforms. Not anymore.

At CPAC near Washington, D.C. — the largest annual gathering of American conservatives — no one apologized or shied away from the S-word this week. That is because their mainstream liberal counterparts embrace the term, openly espousing socialism or “Democratic socialism” as a platform for fixing a country that is not broken.

Vice President Mike Pence took center stage Friday morning to enumerate how unbroken the country really is. A few of his points:

• Unemployment at a 50-year low

• More Americans working than in history

• Unemployment of women at a 55-year low

• Unemployment for Asians, blacks, Hispanics, and other minorities at history’s lowest rate

• Wages for all Americans rising at the fastest pace in a decade

• World’s strongest military getting stronger with largest federal investments in defense since the 1980s

“Confidence is back, jobs are back,” Pence declared. “In a word, America is back and we’re just getting started.”

Meanwhile, Democrats made the front page of The Washington Post with a damning story titled “House Democrats explode in recriminations as House liberals lash out at moderates.”

The Post, citing anonymous sources who attended a close-door meeting between House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and two dozen other Democrats, said Pelosi pressured moderates to get on board with extreme factions of the party. At first she fought the hard-left incoming freshman. Today, she sounds like “if-you-can’t-beat-’em-join ’em.”

“We are either a team or we’re not, and we have to make that decision,” Pelosi said, as quoted in the Post.

The article cites freshman Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez — described by the Post as “the unquestioned media superstar of the freshman class” — threatening campaigns by liberal activists to unseat moderate Democrats in 2020.

Socialism is the mantra of Ocasio-Cortez and the freshman class that idolizes her. They’re wagging the dog, putting nearly all viable Democratic presidential contenders in a race to the left.

They’ve made Pence sound giddy. If anything seems clear about 2020, it is President Donald Trump’s plan to brand Democrats as socialists and run against socialism. Pence gave CPAC a sampling.

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“Today, Democrats openly advocate an economic system that has impoverished millions of people around the world…”

It could be a difficult message for Democrats to counter, given the human history’s lack of successful experiments with full-fledged socialism.

Proliferation of capitalism and free trade around the globe, by contrast, has world poverty at historic lows and in a sustained decline. Capitalism generates capital only when people invent, work and produce for the benefit of others.

“It is freedom, not socialism, that gave us the most prosperous economy in the history of the world,” Pence said. “It is freedom, not socialism, that ended slavery, won two world wars, and stands today as the beacon of hope for all of the world.

“It is freedom, not socialism, that’s moving us beyond the prejudices of the past to create a more perfect union and extend the blessings of liberty to every American regardless of race, or creed or color.

“It is freedom, not socialism, that gave us the highest quality of life, the cleanest environment on earth, and improved the health and well-being of millions around the world.

“We want to make poor people richer; they want to make rich people poorer,” Pence said of Democratic socialists. “We want to make poverty more rare; they want to make poverty more comfortable.

“It’s the choice we face today, between freedom and socialism, between personal responsibility and government dependence. Where freedom encourages investment, socialism stifles growth. Where freedom welcomes diversity, socialism demands conformity.

“The moment America becomes a socialist country is the moment America ceases to be America.”

When Pence declared “America will never be a socialist country,” the crowd stood to offer sustained applause and chants of “USA.”

Democrats have a 2020 problem with their base, and they just don’t know it yet. If they don’t solve it soon, if they don’t anchor to the middle, they will hand re-election to Trump.

The problem showed up last week when a group of children confronted California Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, demanding she support the socialist Green New Deal. When she said it could not be paid for — when she spoke of reality — the children were openly rude. They have heard politicians can change the climate and make all things free.

Children might like the promises of the “superstar” AOC and far left politicians running for president. But children don’t vote.

Elections are decided by informed, mostly apolitical home-owning moderates in the vast middle of the political spectrum. They want good jobs and rising incomes. They don’t believe in unicorns or flying reindeer that deliver free toys at night. Nationwide, they won’t vote for politicians peddling an economic system always proven to fail.

Democrats could use to lose the S-word.