It is always risky to attempt to give a history lesson to an old history professor, but Newt Gingrich’s column in this morning’s Washington Post, requires that someone try. His attempt to attach the label of “secular socialist machine” to the Obama administration by placing it in a “historical” context has nothing to do with history and everything to do the kind of brass knuckle politics which will be his living legacy to this city and the country.

The first question that should be posed is not why Gingrich and his collaborators are attacking President Obama but why they have chosen the word “socialist” in attacking him as opposed to the labels they attempted to attach to the likes of John Kerry, Al Gore, Bill Clinton, Mike Dukakis and Walter Mondale. Is Obama more of a socialist then any of them? As Norm Orenstein has pointed out, the answer is clearly no.

Unlike most democracies in Europe, the United States has no major political party that embraces the basic tenets of socialism. Democrats have generally been seen somewhere on the political spectrum closer to European Social Democrats than Republicans but as a party they have been much more reliant on free enterprise and market based solutions than their left-of-center counterparts in Europe. Further, data collected over many years by Political Scientists Keith Poole and Howard Rosenthal indicate while the non Dixiecrat wing of the Democratic Party has moved little over the past half century, the Republican Party has moved dramatically to the right.
One does not need the complex data base used by these analysts to reach the same conclusion. When Richard Nixon sent a bigger, more intrusive, less market based health care bill to the Congress in 1973 than the measure that Barack Obama just signed, he was not labeled a socialist. Nixon, when compared to other prominent Republicans of his era did not even qualify as a moderate in his party. The Senate contained men like Chuck Percy Jacob Javits, Mac Mathias, Charles Goodell, Richard Schweiker, Ed Brooke and Mark Hatfield. Among the governors were Nelson Rockefeller, Dan Evans, Francis Sargent, George Romney and Dick Thornburg. All of them to the left of Nixon and considerably to the left of virtually any prominent figure in today’s Republican Party.

On a right to left scale of Democratic politicians Obama can hardly be considered left, particularly on economic issues. His principle economic advisors are not only not socialists; they are probably somewhat to the right of most economists who identify with their party and probably no more than centrists when compared to U.S. economists generally. So why is Newt suddenly digging up labels from the 1950s? I think another history lesson is instructive.

In the early 1990s when Gingrich was attempting to lead the effort to win Republican control of the Congress through his Political Action Committee GOPAC, he prepared and distributed a series of taped lectures to Republican congressional candidates. The title of the lecture series was “Language: A Key Mechanism of Control.” In the preface Gingrich explained, “The words…are tested language from a recent series of focus groups where we actually tested ideas and language.”

Gingrich instructed Republican candidates:

Often we search hard for words to help us define our opponents. Sometimes we are hesitant to use contrast. Remember that creating a difference helps you. These are powerful words that can create a clear and easily understood contrast. Apply these to the opponent, their record, proposals and their party.

decay… failure (fail)… collapse(ing)… deeper… crisis… urgent(cy)… destructive… destroy… sick… pathetic… lie… liberal… they/them… unionized bureaucracy… shallow… traitors… radical… threaten… devour… waste… corruption… anti-(issue): flag, family, child, jobs

Arguing that the man who prepared these lectures is now labeling the President a “socialist,” a “secularist” and a “machine” politician because of his analysis of modern American history is about as credible as arguing that Osama Bin Laden launched the 9/11 attacks to improve land use in lower Manhattan.

Newt believes in the use of focus groups today fully as much as when he prepared his candidate lectures in the early 1990s. He knows that Obama has certain strengths and certain weaknesses and among the weaknesses are certain, shall we say “exotic” qualities that Newt and his compatriots have invested much time and effort in learning to exploit. The terms may not have meaning that in any way helps define the real world policy orientation of the Obama administration but they do have meaning in terms of helping certain demographic subsets express their frustration with the “exotic” nature of the Obama White House—a nature that they do not wish to discuss in more direct terms.

Gingrich has always been a person who was willing to use his intellect and lack of character to achieve the impossible. He has done that again. This is truly a new low.

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Scott Lilly has been writing about public policy for more than four decades. He is widely viewed as one of the leading experts on the federal budget process and the impact of changes in federal spending policy on local communities, national security and the economy. For 31 years, he worked as a Congressional staffer during which time he directed the staffs of the Joint Economic Committee, the Democratic Study Group and the House Appropriations Committee. He has traveled widely probing the effectiveness of government programs across the U.S. and overseas. He is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and an Adjunct Professor of Public Policy at the LBJ School of Public Policy, University of Texas. He has testified before numerous Congressional committees and has been a guest on CBS, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC and various other television and radio networks. He has been frequently quoted in the Washington Post, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune and other major newspapers.