Left, New York City Republican mayoral hopeful Joe Lhota, and right, Democratic mayoral hopeful Bill de Blasio. (AP Photo)

After more than a week of being painted as a commie and worse, Bill de Blasio hit back yesterday against his opponent in the NYC mayor’s race with: TOP 10 FACTS ABOUT JOE LHOTA’S ICON, EXTREME CONSERVATIVE BARRY GOLDWATER. Those include Goldwater’s infamous vote against the Civil Rights Act of 1964, wanting to use nukes in Vietnam, and his maxim: “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.” And the de Blasio camp didn’t even get to the John Birch Society championing Sen. Goldwater in his presidential run against LBJ in 1964.

The ugly tit-for-tat began last week, when The New York Times detailed de Blasio’s support of the Nicaraguan Sandinistas in the 1980s. That spawned an outbreak of innuendo—that he somehow supported the Sandinistas’ alleged anti-Semitism (a charge designed to cut into the Democrat’s Jewish vote), that he was a “bleary, dreary”-eyed druggie in college, that he was an unreconstructed commie symp. “Mr. de Blasio’s class warfare strategy in New York City,” Lhota himself said, “is directly out of the Marxist playbook. Now we know why.”

It took a while, but yesterday the Times ran a profile of the young Joe Lhota. In college, he spent “nights in the gallery of the United States Senate, where he sat rapt as Mr. Goldwater, his boyhood hero, orated on the floor.” Lhota, the Times noted, was also accepted into “a right-leaning summer boot camp for undergraduates” that was “the brainchild of a group of conservatives, including William F. Buckley Jr.”

(De Blasio could as well have run the Top 10 Facts about Buckley, including his support for Senator Joseph McCarthy, whom he called “a prophet,” his admiration for dictators, like Chile’s Augusto Pinochet, and his notion of the “cultural superiority of white over Negro.”)

Yes, this sort of guilt by association is absurd. Because even though Lhota says, “I still am a virulent anti-communist,” and de Blasio still finds elements of democratic socialism appealing, in truth Lhota is no more a Bircher or white supremacist than de Blasio is a fellow traveler or anti-Semite.

And at first de Blasio shunned the whole approach. “It’s 2013. I’d like to note, I’m not going to stoop to Joe Lhota’s level here,” he said. “I am a progressive who believes in an activist approach to government. You can call it whatever the heck you want.”

But de Blasio has been forced to hit back; the media was keeping him on the defense, chasing him, asking did he ever agree with Marxism, why’d he honeymoon in Cuba? Even allies in the press wanted to know, was his support for the Sandinistas merely a “youthful indiscretion,” as someone at a New Yorker lunch asked him. “No, it’s not a youthful indiscretion,” he said, refusing to take the cowardly way out. “The reason I got involved, was because of United States foreign policy.”

But for some reason, the press isn’t on Lhota’s tail to explain his adulation of Goldwater, much less are they grilling him on if we should we nuke Syria or whether he’d vote against the Civil Rights Act (not a far-fetched question given the Supreme Court’s gutting of section 4 of the Voting Rights Act). The Times certainly didn’t ask him such questions, nor would it occur to most reporters to do so.

This is a case of the media not making false equivalencies but habitually failing to notice actual equivalencies. Politicians’ involvement in left-wing causes stimulates media hormones more than the right-wing ones do. Partly that’s because the center has moved rightward. But even if it hadn’t, America’s red-baiting, McCarthyite past still has the power to taint.

For whatever reason, ventures into lefty world are treated like a dirty bad act, and they produce a kind of slut-shaming. Maybe the body politic needs to believe that it contains something just too awful to fully accept.

De Blasio may become not just NYC’s most progressive mayor but the first big-name pol to break that bleary, dreary mindset.

Read John Nichols’s post on the ideological differences between de Blasio and current mayor Mike Bloomberg.