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John Nichols on the GOP’s New McCarthyism and the 2008 Congressional Races

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On Friday, Republican Congress member Michele Bachmann of Minnesota stoked controversy after calling Barack Obama “Anti-American” while urging the media to launch an investigation to determine who in Congress is pro-American or anti-American. Bachmann’s re-election now seems a bit less certain. We look at Bachmann’s race and other closely contested congressional races. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Election Day is two weeks from today. While all eyes are on the presidential race, a number of key Senate races are up for grabs, as well as congressional races, that could increase Democrats’ control. My next guest says the upcoming election favors Democratic Senate candidates more than any in recent decades.

Twenty-three Republican incumbents are up for re-election, compared to just twelve Democrats. Amidst the nation’s economic woes and the ongoing war in Iraq, disaffection with Republicans could help Democrats increase their two-seat advantage in the Senate and thirty-six-seat advantage in the House.

John Nichols is the Washington correspondent for The Nation magazine. His article on this year’s key Senate races appeared in last week’s Nation magazine. This week, he’ll write about key races in the House. John joins us here in the firehouse studio.

Welcome to Democracy Now!

JOHN NICHOLS: It’s great to be with you, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the key races.

JOHN NICHOLS: Well, the key races around the country are challenges to Republican incumbents both in the Senate and the House. That’s because most Democratic incumbents running this year, especially for the Senate, are people who survived the 2002 blowout, so they’re very strong Democratic incumbents. The Republicans, on the other hand, are that wave of people who came in in 2002 on the eve of the Iraq war, so they’re very vulnerable, people like Gordon Smith in Oregon, people like Norm Coleman who took the Wellstone seat in Minnesota.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go to what is one of the most talked-about races right now. Before last Friday, it hasn’t been mentioned at all, not a contested race, particularly. I want to turn to Republican Congress member Michele Bachmann of Minnesota. She stoked controversy last week after telling MSNBC’s Chris Matthews the media should launch an investigation to determine who in Congress is pro-American or anti-American.

    CHRIS MATTHEWS: He’s one of the people you suspect as being anti-American. How many people in the Congress of the United States do you think are anti-American? You’ve already suspected Barack Obama. Is he alone, or are there others? How many do you suspect, of your colleagues, as being anti-American?

    REP. MICHELE BACHMANN: Well, I think — what I would say — what I would say is that the news media should do a penetrating expose and take a look. I wish they would. I wish the American media would take a great look at the views of the people in Congress and find out, are they pro-America or anti-America? I think people would be — would love to see an expose like that.

AMY GOODMAN: That is Congress member Michele Bachmann. But before you comment, John Nichols, I wanted to turn to another man from Wisconsin. Her comments have stoked memories of Joe McCarthy. This is a 1954 clip of Senator McCarthy accusing CBS anchor Edward R. Murrow of links to what he called, quote, “traitors and terrorists.”

    SEN. JOSEPH McCARTHY: It is often said by the left wing that it is sufficient to fight communism in Europe and Asia, but that communism is not a domestic American issue. But the record, my good friends, is that the damage has been done by cleverly calculated subversion at home, and not from abroad.

    I am compelled by the fact to say to you that Mr. Edward R. Murrow, as far back as twenty years ago, was engaged in propaganda for communist causes. Now, Mr. Murrow, by his own admission, was a member of the IWW — that’s the Industrial Workers of the World, a terrorist organization cited as subversive. Murrow is a symbol, the leader and the cleverest of the jackal pack, which is always found at the throat of anyone who dares to expose individual communists and traitors.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Senator Joe McCarthy in 1954. John Nichols, he’s from Wisconsin, so are you. And for especially young listeners and viewers, explain the echoes.

JOHN NICHOLS: Well, the echoes are very clear. Let me tell you that we did do better in Wisconsin than just McCarthy. We had the La Follettes and such. But McCarthy was a unique populist, and that’s an important thing to understand, populist anti-communist. He was actually on economic issues not all that right-wing. But he used the anti-communist fervor to win elections. He would not have been elected to the Senate were it not — and re-elected, were it not for this feverish talk.

And what he did was simply make things up. I mean, there’s no question that the history is quite clear. He claimed he had a list of all these subversives; they weren’t there.

Interestingly enough, and this is something that I would bring out with Michele Bachmann, is he was stopped by Republicans. Margaret Chase Smith, a Republican from Maine, stood up in the Senate and did a declaration of conscience saying he was wrong. And it’s striking to me at this point that so few Republicans have stepped up to say to this congresswoman from Minnesota, “What you’re doing is unacceptable.” John McCain should say it.

AMY GOODMAN: In fact, wasn’t the McCain campaign echoing this?

JOHN NICHOLS: Oh, my god. This is —-

AMY GOODMAN: All weekend, the issue of calling Barack Obama a socialist.

JOHN NICHOLS: You know, the thing is that the word “socialist” is now more alive in the politics of America than it has been for fifty years. And not only was the bailout called socialist, wrongly, frankly -— when you give banks money, that’s not exactly socialism — but the McCain campaign and its acolytes in talk radio, especially, it’s “socialism, socialism, socialism.”

And to understand — you know, Bachmann up in Minnesota is somebody who’s been on this for a long time. She is on the far fringe, even of the Republican Party. She and another congresswoman out in Colorado, who’s a little vulnerable this season, have been, you know, kind of the way — you know, they kind of scare Rush Limbaugh a little bit. And they’ve come into the limelight, because, frankly, the McCain campaign is echoing their themes and bringing them forward. It’s a very striking choice by McCain: instead of going toward the center, going to the extreme.

AMY GOODMAN: And, of course, you heard vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin continually talking about pro-America and anti-America regions of America.

JOHN NICHOLS: Well, and this is the incredible thing about this race, because we do see it bleed into the congressional races, as well, this notion that we are very different countries. And it is true. Different parts of the country are very different. But, I mean, that is — there’s a reason they’re doing this, because Barack Obama, love him or hate him, has had this message of unity, these themes of crossing partisan and even ideological boundaries. Many congressional candidates have picked that up. And so, you see the Republicans sort of going back; they’re trying to reinforce the old divisions, because the divisions are a political protection, in a sense.

AMY GOODMAN: So, talk about — this was not a contested race. She was pretty sure-seated, Bachmann. She says this.

JOHN NICHOLS: It’s a Republican-leaning district, yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: And tell us who Elwyn Tinklenberg is.

JOHN NICHOLS: Well, he’s a pastor, a man of religion who pastored a church — I think it was a Methodist church — for a long time up in, you know, the outer districts of the Twin Cities. And then he got into politics, local politics, in Blaine, Minnesota — he was the mayor — and has been, you know, he’s kind of — he’s sort of the kind of candidate that you end up running against a safe incumbent, a good local guy who actually cares about issues, in this case, has, you know, some moral passions, including opposition to the war in Iraq, which is a big issue with him, and a real concern about healthcare reform and creating universal healthcare. That’s been a big theme of his campaign.

And the fact of the matter was, he was not targeted for a lot of help by even the national Democrats. But suddenly, because of this, something remarkable is happening. You know, this age of YouTube and instantaneous communication has changed the politics. You would not have been able to get the resources or the energy to a candidate like Tinklenberg, but when his opponent went on TV saying these things, suddenly, in his campaign office out in Blaine, Minnesota, the phones started ringing off the hook, the emails started coming in. They raised $150,000 in a day. Now I think it’s up to $750,000. He’s going to be a viable candidate, if he can find a way to wedge some ads into that Minneapolis-St. Paul media market against all the ads for Norm Coleman and Al Franken.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, let’s go to that race. These are two campaign ads from the Minnesota Senate race between the Democratic challenger, Al Franken, former Air America host and comic, and incumbent Republican, Norm Coleman. We begin with Al Franken’s.

    AL FRANKEN CAMPAIGN AD: Honest differences on the issues that matter to your family. The economy — Al Franken supports tax breaks for the middle class, a $5,000 tax credit to help families pay for college, stop giveaways to the special interests. Norm Coleman? He supported George Bush’s economic plan all the way, voting for budgets that have left us $10 trillion in debt. It’s Al Franken who will stand up for the middle class for a change.

    AL FRANKEN: I’m Al Franken, and I approve this message.

    SEN. NORM COLEMAN CAMPAIGN AD: He’s been called a watchdog. A former prosecutor, Norm Coleman saw the need for a special investigator in Iraq and then delivered. Norm directed investigations into the Oil for Food scandal, exposed dangerous holes in national security and uncovered billions in government waste and abuse. Leading newspapers say, “Kudos to Coleman,” “A valuable service,” “Highly praiseworthy oversight.” Norm Coleman, independent, effective, results for Minnesota.

    SEN. NORM COLEMAN: I’m Norm Coleman. I approve this message.

AMY GOODMAN: Norm Coleman is the current senator. Al Franken is challenging him. Tell us about this race.

JOHN NICHOLS: The thing to understand about this race is that this is Paul Wellstone’s seat. And the fact of the matter is that when Paul Wellstone died back in 2002, Norm Coleman grabbed the seat. Wellstone would have beaten him.

AMY GOODMAN: Former mayor of St. Paul.

JOHN NICHOLS: St. Paul, yeah, and he — former Democrat, in fact, a guy who had nominated Wellstone in ’96.

AMY GOODMAN: Now there’s another Coleman mayor of St. Paul.

JOHN NICHOLS: Yeah, it seems to be a popular name. But — and you had some experience with those folks. But this race is an interesting one, because Al Franken got into the race really as an extension, in many ways, of his friend Paul Wellstone’s trajectory. And Franken has had a tough race. He is a — he’s got a lot of background, a lot of history, and they’ve thrown it all at him in very negative ads. But he’s run as something of an economic populist. And that economic populism, in the summer, it was just OK; boy, when that bailout started coming, it really pumped things up. And Franken, very wisely, was a strong critic of the initial bailout plan. And if you noted, if you watched the polling there, that opposition to the bailout, that — his noisy criticism of it, was a point at which he started to move ahead. And he is, in the polling now, narrowly ahead.

AMY GOODMAN: So he disagrees with Barack Obama on that.

JOHN NICHOLS: You know, they’ve all gotten murky on this. Let me be very clear. There’s very few people that have the consistency of a Bernie Sanders or a Marcy Kaptur on this issue. And so, you know, once that you got that second stage, it murked up. But what I will tell you is that, yes, Franken still is critical of bailouts to Wall Street. He uses that term, as do a number of the other candidates who, frankly, have come up. The fact of the matter is, that bailout is still a very muscular issue, and taking a stronger stand than either McCain or Obama did on it seems to have paid benefits.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you think if McCain had come out against it, if that would have been the turning point to his campaign?

JOHN NICHOLS: He would be leading in the polls today, I will tell you that. He would be leading in the polls today if he had opposed it.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, let’s go to Oregon right now. Two campaign ads from the Oregon Senate race between Democratic challenger Jeff Merkley and Republican incumbent, Senator Gordon Smith, beginning with Merkley.

    JEFF MERKLEY: I’m Jeff Merkley, and I approve this message.

    JEFF MERKLEY CAMPAIGN AD: Why are Barack Obama and Ron Wyden supporting Jeff Merkley for Senate? Because they know only Merkley represents real change: better healthcare, jobs, and tax cuts for the middle class. So don’t believe Gordon Smith’s deceptive ads. Smith votes with George Bush 90 percent of the time: for the war in Iraq, to overturn Roe v. Wade

    , and to ship our jobs overseas. Smith can’t change his record, and he won’t change Washington.

    SEN. GORDON SMITH CAMPAIGN AD: On the economy, the difference is clear. Gordon Smith cut taxes for middle-class families. Smith cut taxes on seniors, on farmers, and doubled the child tax credit. Jeff Merkley supported higher income taxes for everyone making more than $10,000, higher gas taxes, and higher property taxes, too. Jeff Merkley — more taxes, when we can afford it least.

    SEN. GORDON SMITH: I’m Gordon Smith, and I approve this ad.

AMY GOODMAN: So there you have the current senator, Gordon Smith, and his opponent, the Democratic state legislator in Ohio [sic.], Jeff Merkley.



JOHN NICHOLS: That’s OK. We’ve got Ohio on the mind because of the presidential race. But that’s a great race. Jeff Merkley was recruited to run, but mainly because they wanted to have an opponent to Gordon Smith on the chance that Barack Obama took off as a candidate, frankly, because they figured Obama was going to be a good play in a state like Oregon, which he has been. And Merkley has really tried to distinguish himself by running left. He has had — been very outspoken in his opposition to the compromises on FISA, very antiwar and very, very critical of the bailout. And the fascinating thing is that this has — it has really moved him up. But at core, Merkley is a guy who, as you saw in that ad, is running on Barack Obama’s coattails. And there is a Barack Obama coattail effect in the states — think of it as targeted landslides.

AMY GOODMAN: I didn’t hear Gordon Smith talking about Republicans.

JOHN NICHOLS: Didn’t mention McCain, did he?

AMY GOODMAN: Or even the issue of Republicans in Oregon, is another one.

JOHN NICHOLS: No. Understand this. Gordon Smith had an ad up this summer in which he frequently referenced how closely he worked with Barack Obama. Gordon —-

AMY GOODMAN: In the Senate.

JOHN NICHOLS: Yes. Gordon Smith was trying to link himself to Obama, and that was because he recognized very early on that Oregon is not going to vote for John McCain. And to Obama’s credit -— well, or maybe his self-service — he understands he’s going to need a substantial Democratic majority in order to govern, and so he moved very quickly into that Oregon race with a strong endorsement of Merkley, putting out statements, you know, allowing the use of his video and pictures of him on Merkley’s ads and his website. And I think it has paid off. You know, this is one of those cases where that remarkable boost in registration and turnout for Obama is very likely — not certain, but very likely — to carry in this case a candidate who’s a good deal more progressive than Barack Obama into the Senate.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go to Gordon Smith’s cousins in Colorado and New Mexico —-

JOHN NICHOLS: Distant, I think, yes.

AMY GOODMAN: —- the Udalls

JOHN NICHOLS: Yes. Now, the Udalls are fascinating cases. They’re both — they’re cousins themselves. They’re the sons, Tom and Mark, of Stewart and Mo Udall, former members of Congress, kind of Kennedy-era lefties. And they both voted — they’re members of Congress now — both voted against the war, both voted against the PATRIOT Act. I mean, these guys are pretty interesting additions to the Senate, coming out of states currently held — seats currently held by the Republicans.

This is one where we begin to get the picture, Amy, of a very different Senate in 2009 than the one we have today, not a left-wing Senate, not as progressive a Senate as you saw in the ’60s and the ’70s on some issues, but one that really does begin to have a different kind of Democratic majority, one where the people came up in their — in this period of opposition to the Bush presidency and casting some courageous, and at times dangerous, votes. If these folks come in, again in states where there are some Obama coattails, you could see, you know, a real shift in the Democratic caucus and a shift to the left.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Colorado, New Mexico, and overall politics there?

JOHN NICHOLS: The overall politics in those states is, in both states, competitive. Obama is running hard. McCain is still competing, although dropping back in New Mexico. It looks as if both of the Udall brothers are likely to win their Senate seats. In fact, in New Mexico, the Republicans have essentially dropped out of the race. They’ve ceded it to Tom Udall, who is a very popular congressman from northern New Mexico.

AMY GOODMAN: What about Virginia?

JOHN NICHOLS: Virginia is a very Republican seat held by Senator Warner, and it’s going to be held by Senator Warner after this election. The difference, of course, is that the Senator Warner who’s leaving it is an older gentleman who’s a Republican; the Senator Warner who will take the seat is a younger gentleman, Mark Warner, who’s a Democrat.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk overall about the national landscape here and what it would mean and what is the possibility of there being a veto-proof majority in the Senate of Democrats.

JOHN NICHOLS: Well, the key thing to understand is that sixty is the magic number in the Senate. If you have sixty members of the Senate and they are loyal to you, if they’re going to vote with you on the issues, as a president, you can move a great deal of legislation. Filibusters are the key. Don’t worry about the veto; worry about the filibuster. The threat of stopping action in the Senate, which can be a very positive thing at times — I’m an old-school progressive who actually likes being able to stop action on wars and things like that. I just wish they used it more. But the sixty — a vote of sixty breaks any filibuster. And if there are sixty Democrats, or even fifty-seven, fifty-eight, and a few renegade Republicans, moderates, who will vote with —-

AMY GOODMAN: This also gives Lieberman a particularly powerful role, as an independent.

JOHN NICHOLS: It gives him the next stage of power, if you will. He will stay in the caucus, rest assured of that, if the Democrats take power, because he doesn’t want to give up his committee chairmanship. And frankly, he’s very close to Harry Reid. But if you’ve got a fifty-eight—, fifty-nine-seat Democratic caucus, Lieberman will be in play, as he always is. But interestingly enough, so, too, will Arlen Specter, Olympia Snowe, some of these more moderate Republicans.

The fact is that Barack Obama, especially in these last weeks of the campaign, has come to recognize how very much he wants a governing majority in the House and the Senate, because he knows — and let’s be clear that this is not going to be an easy presidency if he is elected — the fact of the matter is, dealing with these economic issues, you’re going to need a Congress much like those New Deal congresses that would, you know, go with the President on some bold gestures.

AMY GOODMAN: John Nichols, thank you for being with us, a Washington correspondent for The Nation magazine, maintains the blog, the online Beat at, also associate editor of Capital Times, Madison, Wisconsin.

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