Once among the most frightening epithets in American political culture, “socialized medicine” seems to have lost its juju. Today that phrase sounds awfully dated, like a song on a gramophone or a mother-in-law joke or a John Birch Society rant against fluoridated water.

Yet despite that antique quality, the old buzzwords appear regularly in columns, press releases and speeches. Rudolph Giuliani, Mitt Romney and the rest of the Republican presidential pack run around squawking about socialism whenever anyone proposes health care reform. Syndicated columnist Robert Novak warns that the federally financed, state-run Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) is essentially a socialist conspiracy. So does President Bush, who has vetoed a modest increase in that program’s funding because he doesn’t want to “federalize health care.”

Although the Red threat still triggers an autonomic reaction among GOP true believers, the rest of the country no longer twitches to that high-pitched, far-right whistle. Most polls not only show enormous majorities favoring extension of coverage to every child, but substantial support for a radical change in how we pay and administer health insurance — including the possibility of a single-payer system.

Why doesn’t the traditional propaganda work anymore? Perhaps the demise of the Soviet Union and the withering of communism in China have had a delayed effect on public attitudes here. Both the Russians and the Chinese have turned more capitalist than the West, abandoning their former systems without substituting modern protections. The ex-communists are more of a threat to the health of their own societies than to us. Most Americans may also have noticed that corporate bureaucracy and corruption, which figure largely in the present health care system, are not preferable to government bureaucracy. Doctors who used to wail about the dangers of Medicare have learned how unpleasant it is to deal with dozens of insurance companies, each creating different rules to cut costs and deny care. So have their patients.

This corporate model is more expensive and less efficient than the government plans that provide care in every other industrialized nation.

And most Americans may have learned by now that such systems prevail in Western countries that aren’t normally categorized as “socialist,” including the United Kingdom, Japan, Spain, Canada, Germany, France, Denmark, Norway and Sweden. All these nations manage to provide their citizens with high living standards, industrial and technological innovation, and broad political and economic freedom, even after 50 years of national health insurance.

Meanwhile, the credibility of conservatives has diminished steadily. These days they cannot even achieve clarity on the meaning of their favorite cliches. For instance, the president hates “federalized health care,” but sponsors a Medicare prescription drug program that wastes hundreds of billions on drug companies and private insurers. Right-wing definitions no longer seem so clear, either. When the government awards a billion dollars in sweetheart mercenary contracts to a wealthy Republican family in Michigan, that’s “private enterprise.” But when the government helps a struggling middle-class family in Maryland send its children to the doctor, that’s creeping socialism.

Conservative ideology’s declining relevance is again encouraging the politics of personal destruction. That must be why right-wing voices on the Internet, talk radio and the Fox News Channel have launched a nasty attack on the family of Graeme Frost, a 12-year-old Maryland boy who appeared in a Democratic radio commercial endorsing the SCHIP program. He and his younger sister, both victims of a terrible car accident that left the little girl with permanent brain damage, have both needed federal assistance because their parents were unable to afford private insurance. Certain conservative bloggers and pundits, seeking to prove that the Frost family is too affluent to qualify for SCHIP assistance, have harassed them, their neighbors and their co-workers. They have spread myths and lies about the family, their house and the schools that their children attend. And they have made repeated telephone calls to the Frost home, demanding answers to questions about their personal finances.

It doesn’t seem to occur to any of these strict Christian moralists that the Frosts have enough trouble trying to care for their disabled daughter, or that the state of Maryland, under the SCHIP regulations, has determined that the Frost children are fully eligible for the help they obviously need. Let us not hear again from these mean-spirited people about “family values” or “compassionate conservatism.”

Such is the devolution of conservatism in our time — from a philosophy concerned with overweening state authority to a movement that bullies children in the name of freedom.

Joe Conason writes for the New York Observer.

© 2007 Creators Syndicate Inc.

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