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Ted Cruz’s neo-McCarthyism doesn’t bode well for GOP “makeover”

Senator Ted Cruz’s office has now responded to a New Yorker report claiming he gave a speech in 2010 alleging that Harvard Law School was besotted with communists determined to overthrow the United States government — by doubling down on the charges.

This will be a very interesting test case to watch going forward. How will fellow Republicans and GOP-aligned commentators react to Cruz’ claims? The answer could contain clues to the true nature of the ongoing GOP “makeover” we keep hearing about.

To catch you up on the story, the New Yorker’s Jane Mayer reported last week that Cruz gave a speech at a 2010 rally organized by the Tea Party group Americans For Prosperity, in which he said that President Obama would have made the perfect president of Harvard law, where Cruz also attended. “There were fewer declared Republicans in the faculty when we were there than Communists!,” Cruz said, according to the report. “There was one Republican. But there were twelve who would say they were Marxists who believed in the Communists overthrowing the United States government.”

Americans For Prosperity Texas tells me there’s no audio or video of the speech. But a spokesperson for Cruz is standing by the charges, claiming: “Senator Cruz’s substantive point was absolutely correct: in the mid-1990s, the Harvard Law School faculty included numerous self-described proponents of ‘critical legal studies’ — a school of thought explicitly derived from Marxism – and they far outnumbered Republicans.”

The Cruz spokesperson didn’t elaborate on how precisely these Reds are advocating the overthrow of the government. As Steve Benen notes, you can be a subscriber to “critical legal studies” without wanting to violently bring down the American system and replace it with a communist utopia.

It’s unclear to me that this sort of red-baiting attack on the coastal academic elite will have the resonance it did back in, oh, the last century. But here we are, and if more stuff like this flows from Cruz, it’ll be interesting to see how his fellow Republicans react to it. After all, if Republicans are really going to change their party, they’ll need to create an atmosphere in which moderates are no longer forever in fear of the base.

One way to accomplish this, as Jonathan Bernstein has noted, is for more reality-based GOP officials and commentators to stop tolerating the daily diet of The Crazy that other GOPers feed to millions of national base voters on a regular basis. I’m talking about the stuff these officials say that keeps untold numbers of base voters in a state of perpetual delusion — the hints about creeping socialism, the suggestions that Dems are anti-American, the notion that Obama’s modest executive actions reveal him as an enemy of the Constitution, etc. This latest blast of unhinged nonsense from Cruz’s office fits neatly into that category.

As Steve Kornacki puts it: “Cruz is now positioned as a major obstacle to the ideological modernization that the Republican Party is desperately in need of. If his brand of conservatism is treated as the gold standard of purity by the conservative media and conservative activists, Republican leaders will have a hard time moving the party away from its Obama-era orthodoxy.” How Cruz’s remarks are received — particularly if we hear more like this — will be a pretty good indication of where this is headed.