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Karl Frisch

Karl Frisch

Posted April 2, 2009 | 04:50 PM (EST)

"Socialized" Medicine: Next Front in the Right's -isms Arms Race


An "-isms" arms race is under way in America.

Turn on cable news or talk radio and you're likely to hear a conservative host, right-wing pundit, or Republican elected official accuse President Obama and the Democratic Congress of just about every "-ism" in the book.

Socialism, Marxism, Leninism, fascism, Nazism, Stalinism, Maoism -- few, if any, "-isms" have been spared as the right escalates its daily verbal assault on the progressive agenda.

In fact, according to a search of broadcasts on TVEyes.com, since Obama's inauguration in January, these terms and others like them have been thrown around on cable news at least 3,000 times. Add conservative talk radio and the nation's newspaper op-ed pages to the mix and watch that figure grow like a well-watered, limited edition Bill O'Reilly Chia Pet.

Take the third most-listened-to radio voice in America, San Francisco's Michael Savage, who recently called Obama "a neo-Marxist fascist dictator in the making." That's one of the kinder things Savage has said of the president during his daily three-hour hatefest. He's also claimed that the "radical left," including Obama, "dream[s]" of "Maoist revolution" with "death camps" and that Obama appointees "actually have almost the same exact policies as the Nazi Party did."

Then there's Fox News' "-ism" king, Sean Hannity, who has dubbed the United States under Obama the "United States of France" (bonus points for bringing up the dreaded French) and the president himself "commissar-in-chief." Hannity, who hates to pass up an opportunity to advance GOP talking points, has even applauded congressional Republicans for finally using the "S-word." He's also said the Obama administration "is on a mission to hijack capitalism in favor of collectivism. ... The Bolsheviks have already arrived." He opened one recent show by declaring, "Day number 52 of the socialism that you've been waiting for." At least he can count. Spelling, on the other hand, doesn't appear to be Hannity's strong suit. His Red-baiting blood runs so -- well, red, I guess, that his program recently misspelled "comrades" in on-air graphics.

The same folks who've likened progressive policy initiatives to communism have gone on to accuse the president and other Democrats of "McCarthyism." The bizarre nature of this historical comparison is apparently lost on those making the charge. It would be a bit like practicing magic days before kicking off a witch hunt. Hocus-pocus, indeed.

No issue incurs the wrath of these modern-day Red hunters more than health-care reform. For more than 75 years, conservatives have smeared progressive attempts to reform our faltering health-care system as "socialized medicine."

Let's get one thing straight. Anyone who argues that progressive health-care reform initiatives amount to "socialized medicine" is being disingenuous at best. At worst, they lack a basic understanding of what "socialized medicine" really is.

Simply put, health-care reform that leaves the for-profit health insurance industry intact, reform that leaves doctors and other medical professionals free to offer their services outside of a government system, reform that leaves citizens free to choose a private health-care plan over a government plan simply can't be described honestly as "socialized medicine."

As the Urban Institute put it last year, "socialized medicine involves government financing and direct provision of health care services," and therefore, progressive health-care reform proposals do not "fit this description."

That is correct, of course, but that hasn't stopped conservatives from claiming otherwise for decades. Since the 1930s, conservatives have assailed at least 16 different progressive health-care reform initiatives as "socialized medicine" or as a step that would inevitably lead in that direction.

What exactly has constituted "socialized medicine" to conservatives over the past seven-plus decades?

How about Franklin Roosevelt's consideration of government health insurance when crafting the 1935 bill that created Social Security, or Lyndon Johnson's 1965 amendment to the Social Security Act establishing Medicare? Both raised the ire of conservatives, who were quick to run with the "socialized medicine" smear.

In fact, back in 1964, Ronald Reagan, then stumping for GOP presidential candidate Barry Goldwater, said of Medicare, "Will you resist the temptation to get a government handout for your community? Realize that the doctor's fight against socialized medicine is your fight. We can't socialize the doctors without socializing the patients."

Like Roosevelt and Johnson decades before him, Bill Clinton's health-care initiative in 1993 and 1994 and his work to create the State Children's Health Insurance Program in 1997 were attacked time and again as "socialized medicine."

Pick a progressive president. Roosevelt, Truman, Kennedy, Johnson, Clinton, and now Obama -- they've all faced the stale "socialized medicine" routine from the right.

Will it get any better in the weeks and months ahead as Congress debates the president's budget, which will reportedly seek to reform health care? I'm not holding my breath. My own political pessim-ism? More like real-ism with an eye toward history.

Karl Frisch is a senior fellow at Media Matters for America, a progressive media watchdog, research, and information center in Washington, D.C. Frisch also contributes to County Fair, a media blog featuring links to progressive media criticism from around the web as well as original commentary. You can follow him on Twitter and Facebook or sign-up to receive his columns by email.