WASHINGTON -- 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:
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 Sen. 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 only gain traction 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.
There may be some who fear Issa, Ted Cruz or other practitioners of neo-McCarthyism. But there are at least as many 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.
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 Democrats agree had been guilty of mismanagement.
Issa at one point asked that his actions be seen "a little differently" from those of the late senator's. Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), pleaded for mercy on Issa, in faltering Latin.
Too bad, congressman. The way to fight McCarthyism is to denounce its purveyors -- ad hominem and ad infinitum.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter, @Milbank.
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