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Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders have the semantic debate over progressivism Americans want

Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders are having a big disagreement over what it means to be progressive. In the Democratic debate on Thursday, this debate flared up again — because what Americans really want is a semantic argument over a word's definition.

Clinton's argument is that her more moderate but passable policies are progressive, because they will lead to some progress:

I am a progressive who gets things done. And the root of that word, progressive, is progress.

But I've heard Sen. Sanders's comments. And it's really caused me to wonder who's left in the progressive wing of the Democratic Party. Under his definition, President Obama is not progressive because he took donations from Wall Street. Vice President Biden is not progressive because he supported Keystone. Sen. Shaheen is not progressive because she supports the trade pact. Even the late, great Sen. Paul Wellstone would not fit this definition because he voted for DOMA.

You know, we have differences, and, honestly, I think we should be talk about what we want to do for the country.

But if we're going to get into labels, I don't think it was particularly progressive to vote against the Brady Bill five times. I don't think it was progressive to give gun makers and sellers immunity. I don't think it was progressive to vote against Ted Kennedy's immigration reform. So we can go back and forth like this. But the fact is most people watching tonight want to know what we've done and what we will do.

Sanders's argument is that his policy proposals aren't extreme, so he can push them through Congress and, as a result, get much more progress than Clinton's proposals would:

Here's the reality of American economic life today: The reality is that we have one of lowest voting turnouts of any major country on Earth because so many people have given up on the political process. The reality is there has been trillions of dollars of wealth going from the middle class in the last 30 years to the top one-10th of 1 percent. The reality is that we have a corrupt campaign finance system which separates the American people's needs and desires from what Congress is doing.

So, to my mind, what we have got to do is wage a political revolution where millions of people who have given up on the political process stand up and fight back. Demand a government that represents us and not just a handful of campaign contributions, contributors.

Now all the ideas that I'm talking about, they are not radical ideas. Doing, making public colleges and universities tuition free, that exists in countries all over the world, used to exist in the United States. Rebuilding our crumbling infrastructure and creating 13 million jobs by doing away with tax loopholes that large corporations now enjoy by putting their money into the Cayman Islands and other tax havens, that is not radical idea. What we need to do is to stand up to the big-money interests and the campaign contributors.

When we do that we can in fact transform America.

The highly semantic and subjective debate over the word "progressive" seems like a fight for the soul of the Democratic Party — between Clinton's realist view and Sanders's idealist approach. But it's not clear the debate will resonate with the rest of the country.

When Gallup polled on the term in 2010, more than half — 54 percent — of the country didn't seem to know what the word meant. So who knows? Perhaps a high-profile fight between candidates for the Democratic nomination will improve its standing.