Harry Reid, the New Joe McCarthy

Senator Harry Reid started a whole lot of trouble on the campaign trail when he told some Huffington Post reporters that he’d heard that Mitt Romney paid no taxes. As in zero. For an entire decade.

Now there are reasons to be skeptical of Reid’s account. As Dana Milbank pointed out, Reid’s record does not inspire confidence. He says he got this scoop in a phone call with a Bain Capital investor. There is no other documentation or information to substantiate the allegation. Of course, Romney could settle the issue by releasing his tax returns– which is presumably why Reid is doing this in the first place.

Indeed, much of the campaign reporting has focused on why Reid is doing this, and what it could mean. But there’s another theme in the coverage that’s far more unusual: The suggestion that Reid is just like Joe McCarthy. Yeah, that Joe McCarthy.

Here’s now CBS anchor Bob Schieffer posed the question on Face the Nation (8/5/12):

Isn’t this kind of like Joe McCarthy back in the era when he said, “I have here in my hand the names of 400 people in the State Department who are Communists”? It turned out he didn’t. And he was saying the way to prove that they’re not is for them to come forward here.

On ABC‘s This Week (8/5/12), George Will put this way:

Look, in 1950, Joe McCarthy went to West Virginia, didn’t know what to tell to the Women’s Republican Club of Wheeling, West Virginia, so he said I have in my hand a list of 205, we think that are — 205 communists in the State Department. Didn’t have a list. Harry Reid doesn’t have any evidence either. This is McCarthyism from the desert.

On the same program ABC reporter Jonathan Karl called Reid’s comments “one of the most outrageous charges that I’ve ever seen actually made on the Senate floor.” Good thing there weren’t any senators making outlandishly false charges that led the country into war.  I can’t imagine how mad that would make Jonathan Karl.

But the Washington Post editorial page took it the furthest (8/8/12):

If the senator has any proof, he owes it to Mr. Romney, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, to put it on the record, now. Otherwise, Mr. Reid ought to pause and reflect on the record of another senator who once claimed to have a list of Communists and spies at the State Department — and could not substantiate it. Mr. Reid’s smear tactics are not unlike those of Joseph McCarthy and deserve equal condemnation.

Read that last line again: Reid deserves equal condemnation.

This would probably surprise anyone with a notion about what McCarthyism actually was.  Joe McCarthy did not invent an anti-Communist panic–it was well-established by the time he got into the act. But he used his position of immense government power to accuse people–some of whom were working for the government–of being fundamentally disloyal to their country and secretly in sympathy with The Enemy. This hysteria took a tremendous toll on the lives of real people who had done nothing wrong.

Harry Reid, whatever you think of the wisdom of his actions, is saying that Mitt Romney might have figured out–like a few other wealthy people–how not to pay federal income taxes. Can he substantiate that charge? It would seem that he can’t, and he should be criticized for that.

Many in the corporate media think the problem with McCarthy was that he didn’t really have a list. And by that standard, politicians who make allegations against their opponents are just like Joe McCarthy. This serves to whitewash an ugly chapter in American political history.

About Peter Hart

Activism Director and and Co-producer of CounterSpinPeter Hart is the activism director at FAIR. He writes for FAIR's magazine Extra! and is also a co-host and producer of FAIR's syndicated radio show CounterSpin. He is the author of The Oh Really? Factor: Unspinning Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly (Seven Stories Press, 2003). Hart has been interviewed by a number of media outlets, including NBC Nightly News, Fox News Channel's O'Reilly Factor, the Los Angeles Times, Newsday and the Associated Press. He has also appeared on Showtime and in the movie Outfoxed. Follow Peter on Twitter at @peterfhart.