Is communism to Bernie Sanders what pussy-grabbing was to Donald Trump?

Crudely put – for this is an age of crudity, if nothing else – that is the question as the Democratic parade stumbles into another debate tonight, this one in South Carolina.

You may remember October of 2016. The entire punditocracy and even much of the Republican Party leadership thought that GOP nominee Trump had been destroyed and should drop out of the race. Why? An “Access Hollywood” tape had revealed him bragging to Billy Bush about his ability to grab the private parts of women he desired because he was, well, Trump.

We know how that turned out. Trump posted a grudgingly minimal video apology, which ended, dismissively, with, “I’ve never said that I’m a perfect person, nor pretended to be something that I am not.” In other words: Get over it. He didn’t quit the race; he won; and Billy Bush is back on TV.

Will communism/socialism derail Bernie? The senator from Vermont insists he is a “democratic socialist,” which means, he says, that he is for preserving free and fair elections and the rule of law but hopes to use them to enact vast new social welfare programs, regulation of business (especially, now, in the name of saving the environment) and taxes on the rich.

Expect rival Democrats tonight in Charleston to attack newly front-running Sanders by accusing him of being at best a naïve tourist of late Soviet communism – if not an outright enabler of repressive regimes in Cuba, the USSR and Nicaragua in the final Cold War years of the Reagan-Bush presidencies.

How, Democrats will ask, can we criticize Trump for his love of post-Soviet Russia – and affinity for former KGB operative Vladimir Putin – if our nominee said nice things in the 1980s about the Moscow subway, the Cuban literary program and Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, the former Sandanista who, by the way, survives in office as a pro-business dictator?

And can the Democrats nominate a candidate who’s already been warned by U.S. intelligence officials that the Russians are trying to help him?

And do his plans and proposals, which he admits are too large to put a price tag on, amount to something other (and more oppressive) than “democratic”? 

And what about the Cuban American vote in Florida? 

Will Bernie take the bait tonight and apologize for his honeymoon in Moscow? Or defiantly say, as Trump essentially did, “I am who I am and have been this way all of my life”? Take it or leave it, but only I can fix it? And, by the way, I’m talking about Denmark socialism, not Cuban communism.

I’m thinking that Bernie will not back down. I have covered him for years on the Hill. I conducted one of his first test-the-waters interviews and covered his rallies in 2016 and this year.

Let me be very clear: He settled on his socialist political views in the 1960s and has espoused them very consistently ever since. His many supporters don’t care about those labels. And their candidate is far too stubborn and convinced of his mission to trim his sails.

Whatever label you use, this is what his supporters want: “Medicare for All,” free public college, forgiveness of college debt, free early childhood health care and a Green New Deal. They do not care about the price (the rich will pay) or about federal debt, which Democrats and Republicans alike have allowed to balloon hideously since the second Bush administration.

Like Trump, Bernie will give barely an inch. His brand is to be the same guy, saying the same things, in 2020 that he did as a youngish radical in 1972.

His supporters expect nothing less. Time after time at a rally I attended in New Hampshire the other week, Bernie fans told me that the main reason they trust and support him is his “consistency.” If I heard the word once, I heard it 20 times. Young and old voters alike are impressed.

The op-ed pages of august print newspapers are full of advice from “centrists” about how Bernie can modify or shave his positions to fit into their mold. If he would only show RESPECT for others in the party, he’d be acceptable.

But he and Trump know that politics doesn’t work that way now. It’s too angry and divided for anything other than the most stubborn agitators. As Bernie and his supporters see it, a centrist, pro-business Democratic ascendency, which began with Bill Clinton and ended with Barack Obama, has outlived its usefulness, if it ever had any. They want a new New Deal.

Bernie, a student of revolution, knows a regime is near collapse when its leaders start believing they can dictate terms of their own surrender. He senses that he has them on the run – and that the only label that matters is “winner.”