At a presidential primary debate this week, Mayor Pete Buttigieg made an argument that generated some applause from the audience. "It is time to stop worrying about what the Republicans will say," the candidate said. "Look, it's true that if we embrace a far-left agenda, they're going to say we're a bunch of crazy socialists. If we embrace a conservative agenda, you know what they're going to do? They're going to say we're a bunch of crazy socialists."
Buttigieg added, "So let's just stand up for the right policy, go out there, and defend it."
I don't know if Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.) saw the mayor's comments, but soon after, the Republican lawmaker helped demonstrate Buttigieg's point.
"I'm not buying the storyline of progressive versus moderate," Kennedy said during an interview on Fox News, weighing the dynamics of the Tuesday night debate in Detroit."I would remind you that the lesser of two socialists is still a socialist," he continued. "Even from the less liberal candidates, I heard a job-killing, soul-crushing socialist agenda."
Donald Trump, who continues to watch an astonishing amount of television every day, saw the senator's on-air appearance and tweeted his approval.
When a reporter asked Kennedy yesterday whether he'd also describe former Rep. John Delaney (D-Md.) as a "socialist," the senator reportedly replied, "I would."
For those who haven't been following the Maryland Democrat's presidential campaign, Delaney has gone out of his way to run an aggressively centrist campaign, criticizing his more progressive 2020 rivals for advocating ideas he considers extreme.
The idea that anyone would see Delaney as a "socialist" is plainly absurd.
All of which lends credence to two simple truths.
First, Buttigieg's argument from Tuesday night is worth taking seriously. Obviously, if Democrats were to nominate a candidate who's publicly sympathetic toward socialism, the nature of the criticisms would change, but for the party to constantly try to anticipate and accommodate Republican criticisms is folly.
Second, the word "socialist" has obviously been stripped of all meaning, which in practice, doesn't do anyone any favors.
As regular readers may recall, a couple of months ago, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) went so far as to describe efforts to expand voting rights as "full-bore socialism."
The rhetorical laziness is amazing. In much the same way as "judicial activism" has become a conservative shorthand for "court rulings we don't like," the word "socialism" is starting to become synonymous with "anything Republicans oppose."
Part of the problem is that GOP officials are taking an unnecessary risk: if the public likes some Democratic ideas, and Republicans condemn them as "socialism," the right may very well end up making socialism more popular.
But the other angle to remember is the boy-who-cried-wolf phenomenon. Republicans have spent decades accusing every Democratic leader of "socialism," indifferent to how little sense it made. The result had an unintended consequence: the right has undermined the potency of the attack through constant dilution.
That doesn't mean it'll stop anytime soon. As Kennedy and Trump made clear this week, their party seems to have very little else to say.