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Conservatives might be seeking a spiritual leader, organizing principle and fresh identity, but they at least seem to have settled on a favorite rhetorical ogre: socialism.
As in, Democrats are intent on forcing socialism on the “U.S.S.A” (as the bumper sticker says, under the words “Comrade Obama”).
It seems that “socialist” has supplanted “liberal” as the go-to slur among much of a conservative world confronting a one-two-three punch of bank bailouts, budget blowouts and stimulus bills. Right-leaning bloggers and talk radio hosts are wearing out the brickbat. Senate and House Republicans have been tripping over their podiums to invoke it. The S-bomb has become as surefire a red-meat line at conservative gatherings as “Clinton” was in the 1990s and “Pelosi” is today.
“Earlier this week, we heard the world’s best salesman of socialism address the nation,” Senator Jim DeMint, Republican of South Carolina, said on Friday, referring, naturally, to a certain socialist in chief.
Former Gov. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas decried the creation of “socialist republics” in the United States. “Lenin and Stalin would love this stuff,” Mr. Huckabee said, speaking at the Conservative Political Action Conference here over the weekend, a kind of Woodstock for young conservatives.
“Socialism is something new for us to hit Obama over the head with,” said Joshua Bolin of Augusta, Ga., who founded a Web site, “Reagan.org,” which he calls a conservative analog to the liberal MoveOn.org.
Of course, there is nothing remotely new about “socialism,” or the willingness of conservatives to hit the opposition over the head with the term, just as the name callers among the liberals have bludgeoned conservatives as “fascists,” “fundamentalists” and “plutocrats” and whatnot for decades.
But the socialist bogey-mantra has made a full-scale return after a long stretch of relative dormancy.
The contemporary era of socialist demonizing dates to the general election campaign between Mr. Obama and John McCain. Mr. McCain and his running mate, Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska, repeatedly accused Mr. Obama of wanting to “spread the wealth,” an offshoot of Mr. Obama’s caught-on-tape exchange with an Ohio plumber (i.e. “Joe the,” last seen signing copies of his new book at CPAC).
“Socialism” became a star of subsequent McCain and Palin rallies in the same way that a dead bull is the star of a bullfight — an object of slings, spears and overall bloodlust.
The early fiscal activism of President Obama has provided a heap of new fodder for anti-socialists, effectively turning a useful label meant to inspire fear into a we-told-you-so taunt. Last week’s blizzard of economic developments — the administration’s new budget, its partial takeover of another major bank — was fortuitous timing for CPAC, which ran from Thursday to Saturday, giving conservatives an opportunity to give full-throated voice to this re-fashioned refrain.
“The right would use ‘socialist’ against Franklin Roosevelt all the time in the 1930s,” said Charles Geisst, a financial historian at Manhattan College in the Bronx. “To hear him referred to as Comrade Roosevelt during that period was not unusual.” But while socialism is being invoked repeatedly now, Mr. Geisst said, it is a less potent slam than it once was.
Vermont’s Bernie Sanders — an actual real-life, self-identified socialist in the United States Senate — agrees, saying that “socialism” used to carry a ready-made stigma given its association with Soviet-style Communism.
But since there are so few Communist regimes left today, and generations have grown up since the end of the cold war, that stigma has been muted.
Mr. Sanders said he was encouraged that even some conservative critics — he mentions Newt Gingrich — seem to be equating Mr. Obama’s economic agenda to “European-style socialism,” as if to consciously distinguish it from the old Soviet vintage of the term.
“I think this country could use a good debate on what goes on in places like Sweden, Norway and Finland,” said Mr. Sanders, saying that notions like universal health care, more funding for education and a greater tax burden on the wealthy have accessible models in those countries.
Still, when Representative Mike Pence, Republican of Indiana, denounced “European-style socialism,” in his speech at the conference on Thursday, the jeers from the crowd did not exactly signal an openness to debate it on the merits.
Or for that matter, any eagerness to differentiate the Swedish, Soviet and San Francisco flavors.
“The word is most resonant in places where no one is going to discriminate between the various meanings of the term,” Mr. Geisst said.
And one of those places might be CPAC. “Socialism is a bold color concept for conservatives,” said one CPAC celebrity, the commentator Bay Buchanan, who had just finished scribbling autographs for a small cluster of young fans. She contrasted the “bold color” distinctions with the “pale pastels” that conservatives have drawn for too long.
Ms. Buchanan said that while “socialist” has largely been on hiatus as a put-down in recent years, it was an effective instrument in defeating Bill Clinton’s effort to overhaul the country’s health-care system in the early 1990s. “ ‘Socialized medicine’ was a great argument for us,” she said, noting that the term will surely gain even more of a hold when the Obama administration unveils its own health care proposal, probably sometime this year.
“Americans are just genetically opposed to socialism,” said Matt Kibbe, president of FreedomWorks, a conservative advocacy group headed by Dick Armey, the former House Republican leader.
Mr. Kibbe had just finished moderating a CPAC panel in a packed ballroom on Friday morning called “Bailing Out Big Business: Are We All Socialists Now?”
After four speakers took turns whacking the S-beast, Mr. Kibbe ended the proceeding with a quick survey:
“If anyone here is not a socialist, raise your hand,” he said, before heading off to a reassuring mass of palms.