In far-right circles, it’s practically a verbal tic — policies conservatives consider liberal are immediately and reflexively labeled “socialist.” It doesn’t matter if this is incoherent; it’s simply standard GOP rhetoric.

Republican presidential frontrunner Rick Perry, for example, sat down with Time magazine for this week’s cover story. This exchange, in particular, stood out for me.

TIME: Now that you’ve been in the race for while, do you feel pressure to temper some of your rhetoric, like calling the Obama administration socialist?

PERRY: No, I still believe they are socialist. Their policies prove that almost daily. Look, when all the answers emanate from Washington D.C., one size fits all, whether it’s education policy or whether it’s healthcare policy, that is, on its face, socialism.

I realize that the Texas governor’s intellectual capacities are, shall we say, limited, but his comments here are strikingly dumb.

As a substantive matter, the Obama administration isn’t pushing top-down, one-size-fits-all policies in education or health care — Perry seems to have just made that up — but even if we put that aside, the more significant problem is that the GOP’s presidential frontrunner has no idea what “socialism” is.

It’s frustrating that, in many interviews, politicians are asked what they think, rather than why they think it, but the obvious follow-up is, “Governor, what do you think the word ‘socialism’ means?” When Democrats in Washington start talking about public ownership over the means of production, I’ll gladly concede the point. Until then, this is just idiocy.

“Socialism” is not a synonym for “stuff Republicans don’t like.”

Aside from Obama’s advances on gay rights and reproductive rights, there’s just not much in this White House’s agenda that moderate Republicans wouldn’t have found tolerable a decade or two ago. The Affordable Care Act largely relies on private insurers, rather than socialized medicine. Cap and trade was a Republican idea. Keynesian stimulus has been the basis for U.S. economic policy for both parties for eight decades. Investments in infrastructure and education have traditionally been bipartisan priorities.

So what on earth is Rick Perry talking about? By his reasoning, nearly every liberal democracy on the planet — in East Asia, in Europe, in North America, etc. — are fallen dominoes, overtaken by socialists. Presidential candidates, especially those likely to win, shouldn’t be quite this unintelligent.

Also note the rhetorical transition. Exactly two years ago this week, then-House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) appeared on “Meet the Press,” soon after the RNC condemned Democrats of a “socialist power grab,” which caused a bit of a stir at the time. Host David Gregory asked the future Speaker, “Do you think the President is a socialist?” Boehner replied, “No!” as if the question were somehow foolish. Gregory said, “Okay, because the head of the Republican Party is calling him that.” Boehner added, “Listen, I didn’t call him that, and I’m not going to call him that.”

Two years later, the Republican presidential frontrunner is engaged in a red scare, throwing around ridiculous rhetoric as if it were somehow routine.

Steve Benen

Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.