Dana Milbank
Opinion writer April 11

I have here in my hand a list of six people who think Darrell Issa is a fellow traveler of Joseph McCarthy.

I compiled these names while watching Issa, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, lead his panel’s proceedings Thursday to hold former IRS official Lois Lerner in contempt of Congress. Among the half-dozen Democrats who made the comparison:

Dana Milbank writes about political theater in the nation’s capital. He joined the Post as a political reporter in 2000. View Archive

“What we’re about today brings us right back to the McCarthy era,” Rep. Gerald Connolly (D-Va.) said.

Rep. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) accused Issa of “stripping away the constitutional rights of an American” in a way that “has not been taken by Congress since the days of Senator McCarthy.”

The ranking Democrat on the panel, Elijah Cummings of Maryland, said Issa was attempting “something that even Joe McCarthy could not do in the 1950s.”

And Rep. John Tierney (D-Mass.) read aloud an opinion that “Issa’s investigations closely resemble Senator Joseph McCarthy’s 1950s red-baiting.”

“I have more, Mr. Chairman,” Tierney added.

Issa tapped his gavel and offered a sardonic reply: “And if you had more time, I’m sure you would use it.”

Sorry to interrupt this Red Scare rerun, but the Democrats are wrong. Darrell Issa is no Joe McCarthy.

It’s not for lack of trying. As I’ve noted, the California Republican, during his lamentable tenure running the committee, has been reckless, dishonest, vain and prone to making unsubstantiated accusations.

But Issa’s McCarthyism is a faint echo of the real thing, for one very important reason. McCarthy was feared; Issa isn’t taken seriously. This is a rare bit of good news about modern politics: It’s a bad time to be a demagogue.

There have been demagogues in all eras, but they gain traction only in times of fear, when would-be opponents are afraid to dissent. In McCarthy’s time, government and private-sector workers alike feared workplace loyalty tests, and lawmakers feared losing their jobs. “Even politicians who could see through McCarthy didn’t dare challenge him, because voters were voting people out who challenged McCarthy,” said Landon Storrs, a University of Iowa historian who wrote a book on the Red Scare.

There may be some who fear Issa, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) or other practitioners of neo-McCarthyism. But at least as many are unafraid to call these men dangerous or buffoons. This is largely because there is no enemy that poses the sort of threat the Soviet Union did. But there is also a felicitous side effect of the polarization of the two parties: Because there is no longer ideological overlap, as there was in the 1950s, Democrats are unafraid to challenge the likes of Issa.

Strains of demagoguery run through both parties, of course. As my colleague Ruth Marcus has noted , Democrats were guilty of it this week in their efforts to portray Republicans as opponents of equal pay for women. On the right, Cruz has specialized in McCarthy-like allegations, suggesting, for example, that Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel may have been on the payroll of Saudi Arabia or North Korea.

But in neither case is the opposition intimidated by the allegations.

Consider the efforts of Issa, who famously said the IRS targeting of conservative groups was “coordinated in all likelihood right out of Washington headquarters — and we’re getting to proving it.” Instead, he ended up fixing blame on Lerner, a career employee at the IRS who took the Fifth Amendment and refused to answer questions from Issa’s committee. Issa claimed she had waived her Fifth Amendment rights, and this week his committee voted to hold her in contempt.

Committee Democrats, who unanimously opposed Issa’s contempt proceedings, issued a press release noting that a “case from 1954 shows striking similarities between Darrell Issa and Joe McCarthy.” That’s superficially true — both cases involve contempt proceedings against a witness who took the Fifth — but while McCarthy had been branding innocent people as communists, Issa was trying to get information from an IRS worker who Democrats agree had been guilty of mismanagement.

But the biggest difference was the response, as a half-dozen Democrats placed Issa on “the same page of the history books as Senator Joseph McCarthy or the House Un-American Activities Committee,” as Cummings put it.

Issa at one point asked that his actions be seen “a little differently” from those of the late senator. Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.) pleaded for mercy on Issa, in faltering Latin. “Please don’t demagogue the chairman,” Mica said. “You know — what is it? — in logic, college logic, argument, ad — I forget the —”

“Hominem,” somebody suggested.

“Hominem, yeah,” Mica agreed.

Too bad, congressman. The way to fight McCarthyism is to denounce its purveyors — ad hominem and ad infinitum.

Twitter: @Milbank

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