Twenty years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, one thing is increasingly clear: Boy, do the Republicans miss communism.

For Republicans, being anti-communist didn’t merely mean opposition to the Soviets and their ideology. That kind of anti-communism was all but universal in the United States, from the Republican right to the small, democratic socialist left (and encompassing European socialists as well). For the 45 years after World War II, however, anti-communism was also the Republicans’ ultimate wedge issue in U.S. politics.

It enabled them to label Democrats as soft on communism when those Democrats opposed wars, such as Vietnam, as counterproductive and unwise. It enabled them to label liberals as proto-communists when those liberals favored social welfare programs such as Medicare. It enabled them to link liberals to domestic, and thus Soviet, communists when liberals and communists favored the same goals, notably an end to segregation. And it enabled them to attack even hardened Democratic Cold Warriors such as Harry Truman and Dean Acheson as commie-coddlers over events about which the United States had little control — such as the Maoist takeover of China — and for Soviet espionage activities, real and imagined, here at home.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union, then, the task of demonizing Democrats became vastly more difficult, as this year’s Republican presidential contest illustrates. Of late, a favorite Republican theme is that President Obama is a European socialist. “I am for the Constitution,” Newt Gingrich recently proclaimed, while Obama “is for European socialism.” Not to be outdone, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney has suggested that the choice between Obama and himself is one between “a European-style welfare state” or “a free land.”

Which raises some questions for the Republican candidates: If Europe is not a “free land,” why are we still in NATO? If Europe is home to the pernicious bureaucratic authoritarianism that Romney and Gingrich claim, why haven’t Republicans called for breaking our alliances with it? Why do we have close ties to Germany, where workers have considerable input into corporate decisions? Or to Britain, the home of national health? Is Europe friend or foe?

The answer, of course, is that Western Europe was our staunch ally in blocking the spread of Soviet communism and today joins us in such joint ventures as the overthrow of Libya’s Moammar Gaddafi. (Indeed, the Europeans flew the planes while we made the plans.) By any measure, these nations are home to democracies no less robust than ours. Yes, their governments tax more than ours and offer more benefits; they have universal health care that enables their citizens to live longer than ours; and their colleges are still largely free. On their merits, they are a ridiculously poor substitute for the Soviet Union as a political wedge issue to be played against U.S. Democrats — save in two particulars.

The first is winning the support of right-wingers who believe that Obama is, in some sense, not American. Give Gingrich credit: In 2010, long before the presidential campaign, he floated the trial balloon that Obama’s policies could be explained only as a form of “Kenyan, anti-colonial behavior.” The reference proved too far-fetched and arcane even for the Republican right. But a European socialist? That was more plausible. Obama, after all, brought us universal health coverage, just like those Europeans, though it was modeled not on the British system — which even Maggie Thatcher left untouched — but on Romney’s Massachusetts system.

The second particular is that European finances — those of Southern Europe, at least — are underwater, which must prove something about European socialism. Never mind that Northern Europe, the home of social democracy, is doing well economically, both in absolute terms and in contrast to us. Never mind that the woes of some of Europe’s most economically embattled nations, Spain and Ireland, stem not from overspending (for many years before 2008, their budgets were balanced) but from a failure to regulate their banks.

As for nefarious socialists who have held sway over Obama, some Republicans have seized upon Saul Alinsky, the Chicago-based community organizing guru. The young Obama was a Chicago community organizer, was he not? Never mind that Alinsky wasn’t a socialist; that he (like the young Obama) rooted his organizing in churches; that Alinsky once traveled to Rome, at the Vatican’s invitation, to teach the Catholic Church about organizing working-class, anti-communist groups; and that Alinsky’s chief target was the very same Chicago political machine that Republicans allege molded Obama.

Guilt by association was so much simpler when the association, or alleged association, was with communists. In their absence, Republicans have had to grow more ridiculous. They’ve been up to the challenge.