Saturday, March 2, 2013

The GOP has another McCarthy problem

Recently Senator John Barrasso aligned himself with Texas Senator Ted Cruz as a part of a group of GOP senators asking President Obama to withdraw Chuck Hagel’s nomination for Secretary of Defense. Cruz is the Tea Partier who became a US Senator when he defeated a mainstream candidate for the Republican nomination last year.

Cruz has made a name for himself by reviving Joe McCarthy’s tactics. One senator described Cruz as “Jim DeMint without the charm.” Hardly a compliment. DeMint, the former North Carolina senator, has all the charm of a road-killed rattler.

In the 1950s, most Republicans sat on the sidelines cheering as Joe McCarthy make radically false claims about adversaries, ruining lives, costing thousands of loyal Americans their jobs, and hounding people to suicide. At first they did nothing because McCarthy “excited the base,” as they say. He helped them win elections. They didn’t care that he was a cheap demagogue. By the time Eisenhower tried to rein him in, it was too late.

McCarthy became McCarthyism when the Wisconsin senator held up a piece of paper claiming, “I have here in my hand a list of 205—a list of names that were made known to the Secretary of State as being members of the Communist Party and who nevertheless are still working and shaping policy in the State Department.” He was never able to prove his claim. But it didn’t matter. The witch-hunts were underway.

Cruz betrays all the signs of being willing and anxious to pick up McCarthy’s mantle. Before he was elected to the senate and took the big stage Cruz, a 1995 Harvard Law School graduate, called President Obama is “the most radical” president “ever to occupy the Oval Office.” He said Obama “would have made a perfect president of Harvard Law School.” Why did he say that? Cruz justified that claim with another one equally unsubstantiated. “There were fewer declared Republicans in the faculty when we were there than Communists! There was one Republican. But there were twelve who would say they were Marxists who believed in the Communists overthrowing the United States government.”

Twelve Marxists, Cruz said, all willing to overthrow their own government! It’s a serious claim, a nice round number, but no evidence. He quickly learned the same lesson that Joe McCarthy learned early; the wilder the claim, the bigger the headline. Imagine how much more damage McCarthy could have done if he’d had the tools Cruz has, e.g. the Internet, FOX News, Rush and O’Reilly.

As a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Cruz’s first opportunity in the bright lights came when the committee held hearings on the Hagel nomination. Republicans were unanimous in their opposition. Of course they were. He spurned them when he became one of the first Republicans to endorse Obama in 2008. But that wasn’t enough for Cruz who had served in the senate less than six weeks.
Cruz didn’t stop with his questioning of Hagel’s’ patriotism, loyalty, and ancestry. He did Joe McCarthy proud when he said, "At a minimum it’s relevant to know if that $200,000 deposited in his bank account came directly from Saudi Arabia, came directly from North Korea."
No evidence, not even a piece of paper, just an allegation followed by big headlines. Two-hundred-thousand dollars…from either the Saudis or, OMG…North Korea.
It’s good for Wyoming that John Barrasso is a high-ranking member of the GOP leadership. But positions of leadership also carry obligations to do what’s right. That’s all the more so for Senator Barrasso who represents a state whose history is darkened by the suicide of one of its senator. Lester Hunt, a former governor and Secretary of State, took his own life in 1954. That tragedy was one of the horrors of McCarthyism.

History may be repeating itself. Another senator is willing to do great harm with dangerously false headline-making claims. McCarthy’s colleagues were too long silent. Senate leaders like John Barrasso shouldn’t take the risk of being too quiet too long.

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