There is something different about [Republicans'] tone these days, and I can't quite put my finger on exactly what it is. My tentative take is that there's an inchoate quality to their fears that's new. In the past they were fighting against specific things: communism, hippies, Bill Clinton, Islamists, abortion, etc....Who, exactly, is their enemy these days?
Let's take a look at what some notable Republicans have said:
Michelle Malkin: "Obama: I'm not a socialist, I just play one on TV."
Glenn Beck, Fox News: "People once again are feeling oppressed by an out of control state. We're afraid to the government growing larger ... They're marching us toward 1984. Big brother."
Rep. Paul Ryan, WSJ: "If this agenda comes to pass, it will mark this period in history as the moment America turned European."
Charles Krauthammer, WaPo: "His goal is to rewrite the American social compact... He's here to warranty your life."
AmSpecBlog, American Spectator: " There is a whiff of Fascism emanating from the Obama White House."
Really, the enemy seems pretty clear. Conservatives think Obama is a socialist - or National Socialist - and just about every high-level critique of his presidency references some aspect of his socialism-style budgets, his socialism-style takeover of General Motors, or his socialist-style faith in more government funding for education and health care.
Where Drum is right, however, is that the specter of socialism differs from past conservative boogiemen - "communism, hippies, Bill Clinton, Islamists, abortion, etc" - in at least four important ways. First of all, this time the enemy isn't external, which means that it's more difficult to construct the kind of American-as-a-fortress national unity arguments that worked so well against the Soviets during the Cold War and the Islamo-fascists in the few years after 9/11. Second, the enemy isn't a person. Conservatives don't (yet) hate Barack Obama as a guy with the bile that reflexively came to their lips every time Bill Clinton appeared on TV. Third, the enemy isn't moral. Casting pro-choicers as immoral is an simpler trick because abortion is a moral debate that breaks down fairly logically into two sides. Deficits are just plain different because there's no religious conviction about an appropriate ratio of government spending-to-revenue. Obama's deficits are daunting, yes, but Reagan ran big deficits, too. Bush seemed to be OK with them. Cheney said they didn't even matter.
Finally, and ultimately, it's about the visuals. The problem Republicans might have going forward isn't finding something for conservatives to fear - socialism seems fine - but figuring out what exactly scary socialism looks like. All they've managed so far are foggy images of the future, like the idea of increased taxes somewhere down the road, or the idea of a larger public sector. But these enemies don't have faces. Kruschev had a face - a big one. So do hippies, the Clintons and terrorists. What does a bloated public sector look like? That's just the problem.