10/02/2013 02:58 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Red Scare on the Campaign Trail

A specter is haunting New York. It is the specter of a Sandinista in City Hall.

Bill de Blasio, the Democratic candidate for mayor, currently enjoys a 40-point lead over Republican Joe Lhota. You'd think his program would be endlessly analyzed by the press. Yet he has spent the better part of a week contending with gnat-swatting stories about his youth. The bite that had the greatest sting was a report in the New York Times that de Blasio once looked kindly on the Sandinista revolution.

The Times has never done a systematic examination of de Blasio's ideas. Instead it has focused on the peripheral aspects of his philosophy. During the primary campaign, the paper of record fearlessly exposed de Blasio's fondness for the Boston Red Sox (anathema to New York Yankee fans). And recently it revealed his affection for an even greater Satan. In 1988, the Times reported, de Blasio visited Nicaragua, liked what he saw there, and worked in a program run by Jesuits. Back then, it seems, he referred to himself as a "democratic socialist."

The Times story was a full and fair account of de Blasio's activist youth. But the paper of record wouldn't let it go. In the next few days, its metro reporters filed follow-up after follow-up, chasing down the candidate for a comment and relishing his opponents' vehement reactions. One of them, Adolfo Carrión Jr, was incensed by the discovery that de Blasio and his wife had honeymooned in Havana. To Carrión, this meant that he shared the philosophy of Fidel Castro. Republican Lhota was no less blunt. He declared that "de Blasio's class-warfare strategy... is directly out of the Marxist playbook." De Blasio is "on the defensive," a Times reporter wrote. Only a pollster would disagree.

In a campaign marked by baroque sex scandals and issues that seem petty to most New Yorkers -- i.e. the fate of kittens stranded on the subway tracks -- this latest revelation probably will not raise many eyebrows. After all, the mayor of New York does not have a foreign policy (unless it involves tax subsidies for condos sold to Russian oligarchs). But for the press, which has been hostile to de Blasio throughout his campaign, Sandinogate is a major news event.

To its credit, The Daily News sniffed at this story and moved on. Its star columnist Mike Lupica has been far more concerned about de Blasio's critique of stop-and-frisk policing, a major issue in the mayoral race. But its rival tabloid, the Post, has been wallowing in red-baiting like a hog in mud. One columnist resorted to classic '50s rhetoric, labeling de Blasio "a former fellow traveler." "Obama to Meet Sandinista-Loving De Blasio," one Post headline screamed, while another snarked that, by simply being in the country, de Blasio had "Ignored Nicaraguan anti-Semitism." Then there was the paper's big scoop. Twelve years ago, de Blasio, along with other members of the City Council, attended a reception for Robert Mugabe. "What is it about Bill de Blasio that attracts him to leaders of some of the world's most loathsome regimes?" a Post editorial asked. Wait -- a Commie Mugabe supporter? How can that be? Never mind.

No one expects subtlety from the Post. The essence of that paper's corruption can be seen in its major beef with de Blasio. The Post has fumed at his opposition to housing charter schools in public-school space. There have been several enraged editorials, none of them mentioning that the Post's owner, Rupert Murdoch, has a business stake in privatizing education. But, then, a newspaper owner's financial interests are rarely if ever noted in its editorials, even when that information is highly relevant. In this respect, the Times is no different from the Post.

Still, the Times has checks and balances that Murdoch-owned media clearly lack. Its most progressive city reporter, Michael Powell, filed a piece not long after the Sandinista exposé pointing out that the ranks of democratic socialists include Golda Meir and François Mitterand, and that these leftists are often staunch anti-Communists. Powell might have added that New York's greatest mayor, Fiorello LaGuardia, ran as a fusion candidate on the Republican and Socialist lines. But that was back before McCarthy made flag-draped fealty to capitalism a duty in American politics.

On election day we will see if red-baiting still has the power to scare an urban electorate. It doesn't seem likely, but the real stuff of New York campaigns has yet to assert itself. Stay tuned for various October surprises: a march across the Brooklyn Bridge by charter-school supporters; new attempts to nibble away at de Blasio's populist creds; and the arrival of Rudy Guiliani, Lochinvar of the Archie Bunker belt and stalwart supporter of Joe Lhota.