THE BLOG
09/25/2013 08:00 am ET Updated Nov 25, 2013

Red Baiting Is the Last Refuge to Which Joe Lhota Clings

Republican candidate for mayor Joe Lhota seems to have decided the best way to overcome his 40 point deficit in the polls is by red baiting Democratic nominee Bill de Blasio. Lhota has little chance of winning, particularly as he is unlikely to have the 14-1 fundraising advantage Mayor Bloomberg enjoyed when he squeaked by to victory in 2009 by less than four points. For this reason, Lhota's attacks on de Blasio are more quaint than offensive, but they nonetheless merit some attention.

The impetus for Lhota's attacks on de Blasio are a New York Times story revealing that de Blasio who campaigned as a progressive Democrat is, by most measures, indeed a progressive, and that he has held his those views since he was a much younger man. The article revealed that de Blasio was opposed to President Reagan's war on the Sandanista government in Nicaragua and that he visited that country in the late 1980s as part of a group funded by progressive Catholic leaders. The article goes on to describe de Blasio eventually moving away from his direct work with Nicaragua as the 1980s turned into the 1990s and he began to work for Mayor David Dinkins.

Lhota looks at this and sees a Communist, but many progressive New Yorkers see de Blasio's past and recognize it as similar to their own. For progressive Democrats of de Blasio's generation, opposition to Reagan's policy in Nicaragua was a view that was broadly shared, comparable to opposing the Vietnam War a generation or so earlier. Reagan's reputation has gotten consistently better since he left office 25 years ago, but anybody who lived through those years must remember how polarizing Reagan was, and how strongly progressives disagreed with his policies on Nicaragua and other issues. Moreover, on many of those issues, from urging more funding to combat AIDS to calling for a less interventionist foreign policy, Reagan has proven to have been wrong and progressives, like de Blasio, have been proven right.

A Republican like Lhota cannot be expected to see things that way, but his red baiting and attempts to portray the Democratic nominee as a potential Communist dictator of some kind or another will get little traction. Moreover, Lhota's attacks further demonstrate that the Republican default is always name calling and extremist attacks rather than policy proposals or concern for working people.

Lhota's attacks carefully avoid anything with any bearing on policy or governance in 21st Century New York City, "Bill de Blasio needs to explain himself...to the hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers who escaped Marxist tyranny in Asia, Central America, and from behind the Iron Curtain in Eastern Europe...Mr. de Blasio's class warfare strategy in New York City is directly out of the Marxist playbook. Now we know why." Lhota's argument that New York does not need a Stalinist mayor is probably true, but not exactly pertinent, and amounts to little more than name calling. However, if one is going to play the guilt by association game, it is considerably more relevant to raise the question of whether New Yorkers who came to this city from other parts of the US or the world to escape religious persecution, homophobia, racism or fanaticism needs a mayor who represents a party which continues to reflect those values-not 25 years ago, but today. It is hard to miss the irony that Lhota's campaign is shaping up to be framed on the one hand by an attempt to tar de Blasio for positions he took, which were good and defendable ones, a quarter century ago, and on the other hand by running from the extremist reputation of his own party.

Equating any attempts to make economic policy more responsive to the needs of poor people with Communism has a long, if far from distinguished, pedigree. We still see it in national politics where Republicans frequently accuse President Obama of being a Communist or Socialist because of his efforts to return the marginal tax rate on the richest Americans to what it was under President Reagan and to require all uninsured Americans to buy health insurance from private companies. These attacks are meant to suggest that raising taxes on the wealthy, expressing sympathy with the working poor, reforming health care systems, or opposing an aggressive and secret war against an elected government in a nearby and non-threatening country, is the first step to the Gulag. For decades red baiting of that kind could ruin careers and destroy lives. Today they feel retro and almost laughable. This demonstrates how much our country has evolved and matured. Unfortunately, Lhota and most of his fellow Republicans have not.