As House Republicans aim to use their majority to divide Democrats on toxic political issues, they found early success this month making new hay out of an old idea: the “horrors” of socialism.  

House GOP leaders staged a vote Thursday on a resolution condemning socialism as a fundamental threat to American prosperity and independence — a proposal that split Democrats and provided a potentially potent new attack line for GOP candidates heading into the 2024 elections. 

While a majority of Democrats voted in favor of the measure, 100 of the 212-member caucus declined to endorse it. And GOP leaders wasted no time pouncing when the tally was in.

“That wasn’t a college vote on a college campus. That was a vote in the U.S. Congress that 100 Democrats couldn’t say socialism was wrong,” Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) told reporters in the Capitol. “That’s a scary point of view.”

As a logical argument, Republican attacks on socialism have been undermined by their support for social-welfare programs, including McCarthy’s recent vow to protect federal benefits under Social Security and Medicare — programs that are run exclusively by the government and funded collectively by taxpayers, who are required to contribute. 

Republicans have, for decades, castigated those entitlements as socialist initiatives that trample on free enterprise and individual liberties, and Democrats are warning that, despite the rhetoric, GOP leaders are still eyeing cuts. 

“We’re not fooled by Speaker McCarthy’s promises, by the way,” Rep. Jim McGovern (Mass.), the top Democrat on the Rules Committee, said. “We know what he means when he says he wants to ‘protect these programs,’ it’s code for cuts. We’ve seen this movie before.”

From a political vantage, however, the GOP’s efforts to link Democrats to “socialism” as an abstract concept have historically been effective, resonating with broad swaths of conservative voters and helping Republicans gain vast ground in states like Florida, which has shifted squarely in recent years from a purple battleground to a red stronghold. 

Among outside political experts, there’s some disagreement about just how effective the GOP’s strategy will be. 

Tobe Berkovitz, associate professor of advertising emeritus at Boston University, noted that each party has, for years, sought to characterize the other as “radical” and “out of step with most Americans.” He pointed to former President Reagan’s effort to portray Democrats as soft on defense, and George H.W. Bush’s campaign to depict Democrats as weak on crime.  

“This has been going on forever,” he said.

Both of those strategies proved successful, and Berkovitz predicted that vulnerable Democrats may have a tough time explaining why so many in their party voted against the Republicans’ anti-socialism resolution. 

“If you are running in a contested seat, it positions you very badly because your party is advocating for something that is probably out of step with voters in these swingier districts or states. And then it just provides grist for your opponent. ‘See, the congresswoman is lining up with the socialists,'” said Berkovitz, who has worked for roughly five decades advising candidates of both parties on their media strategies. 

“So it is pretty effective, because really both parties have been pandering to their base, and yet it’s not always the base that’s going to win in a contested election.” 

Others aren’t so sure. Karlyn Bowman, an elections expert at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, said the attacks on socialism “probably could be effective” in “a few” pockets of the country. She singled out Florida, with its relatively high concentration of Cuban and Venezuelan Americans. 

But nationally, Bowman suggested the issue will pale in comparison to lingering concerns about the volatile economy. 

“It could make life tougher for some Dems in some battleground districts,” Bowman said in an email, “but would it rank above something such as inflation or the economy and jobs? I doubt it.” 

Democrats who opted against supporting the resolution voiced various reservations, but the largest was the potential threat to entitlement programs. Despite agreeing with the overt goal of the resolution — to denounce socialist leaders and atrocities committed under such regimes — some Democrats saw the effort as a veiled step in the GOP crusade against Social Security and Medicare.

They sought to separate the two issues with an amendment — proposed by Rep. Mark Takano (D-Calif.) — that would have added language to say “any opposition to ‘socialist’ policy implementation in the United States does not include existing Federal programs” like Social Security and Medicare. But Republicans on the Rules Committee rejected the addition in a 4-9 vote, a decision that moved the needle for some Democrats.

“I was prepared to vote for this resolution,” Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-Texas) said. “Socialism is clearly not the best path for America, and who wants to be associated with Stalin and the others that this resolution denounces, really thugs that were masquerading as socialists?”

“But when the promoters of this worthless resolution rejected the Takano amendment to protect Social Security and Medicare, their goal became clear,” he added. “This resolution is the foundation for continued attacks on better Medicare for more Americans, and their attempt to cut Social Security benefits.”

Democratic Leader Hakeem Jeffries (N.Y.) said the resolution was meant to “provide cover” for Republicans “to try to undermine an agenda that is designed to lift up the health, safety and well-being of the American people.”

“The American people should not be fooled by anything that takes place on the floor today with respect to the so-called resolution on socialism,” he added.

Republicans, however, argued the resolution was strictly about denouncing socialism.

“To be clear, this resolution is not about Social Security or Medicare, two programs with broad bipartisan support,” Rep. Mike Lawler (R-N.Y.) said last week. “It is about a sick ideology that has destroyed nations, ruined lives, and resulted in death and destruction around the world.”

The GOP’s vocal defense of the entitlements marks a sharp break from the party’s historic position, which held that Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid are fundamentally socialist initiatives that undermine free markets and individual freedoms.

Even before Medicare’s creation in 1965, Reagan warned of the fundamental dangers of “socialized medicine.” Former Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) hoped for Medicare “to wither on the vine.” Former President George W. Bush privatized parts of Medicare, and sought to do the same with Social Security. And former Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), as chair of the Budget Committee, had proposed annual budgets that ended traditional Medicare and privatized Social Security.

With the ascent of former President Trump — who vowed from the first day of his 2016 campaign to “save Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, without cuts” — Republicans have largely toned down those attacks. And GOP leaders are now treading delicately around the issue heading into a series of budget debates, where some conservatives are already urging entitlement “reforms” in the name of keeping the programs solvent.

Recent polls hint at the pressure they’re facing. 

A January Economist-YouGov survey found that only 17 percent of respondents supported cuts to Medicare and Social Security, versus 70 percent who oppose such action. 

Older polls reveal another factor driving the debate: Republican voters are far more likely to oppose “socialism” broadly, but are less likely to consider the entitlement programs to fall into that category.

“Social Security and Medicare are very important to many older average Americans. And the last thing that the Republicans need to do is say, basically, ‘We’re going to screw you,’” said Berkovitz. 

“It just depends whose ox is being gored, and who is getting a benefit from any of these programs.”