The political equivalent of schoolyard bullying seems back in vogue to a degree seldom seen since the days of the late Sen. Joe McCarthy of Wisconsin, who used bare-knuckle intimidation to cow a whole country into viral anti-communism in the 1950s.
Despite New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie's assurance that "I am not a bully," more accounts of his strong-arm methods to get his way, strongly hinted in what's now known as Trafficgate, have cast him in that light.
An even more pertinent comparison with McCarthy is being drawn by Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas. His verbal muscling of his own party's congressional leaders forced them to put their own political futures on the line rather than create another suicidal government shutdown.
The surprising decisions of House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell to avert a second government shutdown over raising the federal debt ceiling suggest that the Republican leadership is determined to counter its tea party faction, and beard the Mr. Cruz lion in their den.
Sixty years ago, McCarthy relentlessly whipped much of his Republican Party into a frenzy by blatantly conjuring up an imaginary army of traitors in the Eisenhower administration, particularly in the State Department. He branded any target who invoked his constitutional protection against self-incrimination a "Fifth Amendment Communist."
Eisenhower for a long time turned the other cheek to theWisconsin rabble rouser, telling aides he refused "to get into a pissing match with that skunk." He carried it even to the point of dodging an opportunity to challenge him over derogatory remarks against Ike's old comrade in World War II, Gen. George Marshall.
In 1950, after McCarthy had charged there were 205 unnamed communists at State, Republican Sen. Margaret Chase Smith of Maine and six others released a Declaration of Conscience saying his tactics had debased the Senate "to the level of a forum for hate and character assassination."
Four years later, McCarthy ultimately did himself in when he brutally attacked Army officers in Senate hearings on alleged communist infiltration. Chase and other Republican senators had enough. They led censure of him by a 67-22 vote. Thus reduced to ineffectiveness and alcoholism, he died three years later.
McCarthy had been able to generate a substantial public following by seizing on Cold War fears of the Soviet Union that mushroomed after World War II and the nuclear arms race that ensued, creating a wave of super-patriotism in the country.
Today, Cruz has built his following absent any similar home front hysteria. Instead, he has hitched himself to an anti-government pushback against congressional dysfunction amid the growth of the federal bureaucracy. The emergence of the tea party movement has brought a minority but effectively obstructionist element to an increasingly conservative Republican Party, as its old liberal wing has disappeared.
In one sense, however, Mr. Cruz as a freshman senator has managed already to earn the disfavor and animosity of fellow Republicans on Capitol Hill not achieved so quickly by McCarthy. Mr. Cruz has seemed to go out of his way to antagonize and alienate senators of his own party with his free-wheeling ways.
He did not hesitate to offer himself as the point man in the House as well as the Senate in taking on President Obama in the budget fight over defunding Obamacare. It led to the 16-day federal government shutdown in October, and threatened to do the same in the subsequent battle over the debt limit, until Messrs. Boehner and McConnell interceded.
In the 1950s, the long delay by the Republicans in the Senate in bringing the uncontrollable Joe McCarthy to heel caused severe damage to the party reputation and brand for years afterward. McCarthyism was permanently inserted into the political lexicon of the nation as describing rabid character assassination.
Today's ambitious Texas upstart has not yet made Cruzism a household word, but he seems determined to do so as a subversive in his own party. For the sake of the Grand Old Party's good name, another Margaret Chase Smith and another Declaration of Conscience seem in order.
Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption" (William Morrow). His email is email@example.com.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun