Ann Althouse says that John McCain’s attempt to paint Barack Obama as a socialist is incoherent, and wonders if McCain is “exhausted or sick.” McCain may well be losing it, but that’s not the reason he can’t make the case. There’s no case to be made.

Yep, that’s the word for McCain these days. Don’t believe me? Then believe Ann Althouse.

The whole “socialist” thing is so wrong on so many levels it’s hard to get started.

First, it’s obviously, grossly, ludicrously false. Obama does not believe in state ownership of the means of production. He believes in a state that makes capitalism work for everyone. When he thinks about economic policy Obama’s first move is toward Alexander Hamilton, who invented what is now called the “mixed economy” before anyone had ever heard of socialism.

Second, McCain doesn’t really believe it. First he cites his vote against the Bush tax cuts as evidence that he’s a maverick. Then he cites Obama’s opposition to extending those cuts as evidence that Obama is a “socialist.” Or it’s because Obama offers refundable tax credits, when refundable tax credits are at the center of McCain’s own health care plan. This stuff doesn’t pass the giggle test.

Third, and most of all, “socialist” as a campaign issue has nothing to do with economic policy at all. Because the oligarchs of Soviet Union and the rest of the Leninist/Stalinist/Maoist world &#8212 and their Western apologists &#8212 used “socialist” as a label for their mix of state capitalism with tyranny, during the Cold War calling someone a “socialist” was a way of challenging that person’s loyalty. “Socialist” in the context of McCain’s attack on Obama has no real reference to an economic theory; it’s just part of the attempt to make Obama into the Scary Other: the black nationalist/ terrorist/ radical/ Muslim/ Marxist/ Chicago machine politician/ vote-stealer/ fake Messiah/ baby-killer/ pervert/ alien/ cosmopolitan/ European/ celebrity/ elitist. (Now James Pinkerton adds “Satanist”. No, seriously.)

No wonder an intellectual like Althouse can’t parse what McCain is saying. And good for her for having the nerve to say so.

But the message isn’t incoherent just because McCain is “exhausted or sick.” Yes, McCain does seem to suffer from a certain … shall we say “lack of focus”? But that merely makes it harder for McCain to conceal the fact that there’s no actual thought behind the fear-mongering. Give someone smart &#8212 Althouse, for example &#8212 the assignment of explaining the sense in which Barack Obama is a “socialist,” and she couldn’t really do any better at it. There’s simply no there there.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com