In an interview on GBTV, Michele Bachmann criticized Newt Gingrich’s support for the Medicare Part D prescription drug entitlement program, calling him a “frugal socialist.”

“It doesn’t help to have a frugal socialist,” Bachmann said. “That’s really what we’re talking about is managing socialism and trying to be a frugal socialist.”

Host Glenn Beck invited her to repeat the accusation, asking her pointblank whether she was calling Newt Gingrich a socialist.

“I’m saying a frugal socialist, yes! Because you’re looking at proposals and programs that are in effect redistribution of wealth and socialism-based, and are we going to have real change in the country or are we going to have frugal socialists?”

Bachmann then delivers an inspiring soundbite in which she explains why the solution to high health care costs is to eliminate federal involvement in the health insurance space entirely.

“What I would do is have free markets in health care,” she said. “The problem has been the federal government intervening in free markets in health care. That has driven the cost up everywhere. What we need to do is go back to allowing people to buy any health insurance policy they want anywhere in the United States with no federal minimum mandate requirement … and then have them pay for their policies with their own tax-free money … and then have true medical malpractice reform.”

Bachmann’s responses were daring — and they’ll earn her media attention for their “extremity.” But is it extreme to say a federal prescription drug program is frugal socialism? Why is it automatically considered over-the-top to call a person or a program socialistic? Especially, I wonder why progressives object to the moniker “socialist.” Don’t they favor redistributive policies? Stop ducking the label and start defending the economic system, people! To identify an ideology accurately or to ascribe an ideology to a person who actually holds it is not to insult a person, but rather to describe a person.

Ultimately, Bachmann’s remarks underscore that what passes for conservatism — not necessarily in Newt Gingrich, but in virtually all conservatives in the 21st Century — is advocacy for a slightly less big government, not necessarily advocacy for an actually small government. The grounds of a couple debates illustrate this: It’s difficult enough to talk about entitlement reform in this post-New-Deal-era, let alone the abolition of entitlement programs. It’s difficult enough to talk about limiting federal involvement in education, let alone the abolition of the Ed Department entirely. We have accepted a certain size of government as fixed and permanent — and now just seek to keep it from expanding further.

Bachmann isn’t a brilliant politician; she’s willing to point out truths that make even conservative voters uncomfortable with her. Nor is she pragmatic in any way; she’s principled almost to a fault, if such a thing can fairly be said of anyone. Gingrich, I’d argue, is both a brilliant politician and, often, a pragmatist. (He has a reputation for bombast and a flair for the dramatic, but, at his core, he seems able to measure the appetite for reform and to not seek to achieve more than the electorate wants.) As Right Wing News’ John Hawkins recently pointed out in his endorsement of Gingrich, as Speaker, Gingrich truly moved conservative legislation; he didn’t just say “no” to everything that came down the pike because it wasn’t “conservative enough.”

Arguably, the most extreme conservatives in our day and age will have to content themselves with pragmatic politicians and moderate governance — now and always — because progressive forces have fundamentally reshaped the debate, are still at play in our political system and have to be worked around. The only viable option conservatives have is to work within the political system and to gradually roll back government.

Still, Bachmann’s question is worth asking, not just in 2012, but always: “Are we going to have real change in the country or are we going to have frugal socialists?”

Click the image to watch the interview.