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Senator Cruz, Meet Senator McCarthy

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As the nation holds its breath hoping that Republican "moderates" in the House of Representatives will somehow prevail and vote to re-open the government, Geoffrey Kabaservice wrote a very useful piece in the New York Times about those self-same "moderates."

Kabaservice reached back almost 20 years to the last time GOP zealots shut the government and reminded us that it was "moderates" that put the Gingrich Gang in power in 1995 in the first place.

Those moderates, Kabaservice points out, admired Gingrich's combative style and his win-at-all-costs tactics. Tired of cooperating with Democrats as a loyal opposition they decided that wanted to wield power and flex their partisan muscles instead.

But that sorry moment in American history was not the first time the GOP centrists fell in the thrall of their own extremist impulses. Ted Cruz, meet Joe McCarthy.

Joseph McCarthy came to Washington to represent Wisconsin in the US Senate in 1947 not carrying much of an agenda beyond his own self-promotion. Frustrated in his first two years that no one much paid attention to him, McCarthy was persuaded by some advisors to pick up the "communist issue." In February 1950, McCarthy gave his now infamous "I have a list" speech in Wheeling, West Virginia and he was off.

We all know the rough outline of the story that then followed. McCarthy gave his name to a period of paranoid hysteria which ruined careers and wrecked lives. And amidst the chaos he created, McCarthy became a much-quoted and a much-in-demand media celebrity. Which was his primary goal in the first place.

McCarthy was an odious political figure without question. But no one politician, even a US Senator, can dominate the politics of an era without a lot of help. And McCarthy got it from his more mainstream colleagues. Republican leaders in the Senate, like Robert Taft, quietly encouraged McCarthy or tacitly approved of him. After all, his antics did damage to Democratic politicians and seemed to go over with the public. By 1954, McCarthy's public approval rating was over 50 percent.

Even President Dwight Eisenhower, who found McCarthy personally repellent, found him politically useful. He refused to challenge McCarthy directly trying instead to take the high road: "I will not get down in the gutter with that guy," Eisenhower said, which also meant that he did nothing to rein McCarthy in.

McCarthy imploded in the spring 1954 after he held hearings where he attacked the leadership of the army. He rambled, he bullied, he lied, he made things up, and it was all broadcast on the new medium of television. Exasperated, army attorney Joseph Welch asked, "Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last?" The question was purely rhetorical. McCarthy had no decency, he never did, and Americans saw it all on TV. McCarthy's poll ratings plummeted. Only then did the Senate get around to censuring him for his behavior.

Which brings us to the junior senator from Texas and the Tea Party kids he is leading like the Pied Piper over in the House.

Like McCarthy and Gingrich, the extremist minority now calling the shots on Capitol Hill are the creation of a larger group of pusillanimous Republican law makers who kept quiet while the Tea Party took over and now find themselves too scared or confused to speak up.

There is clearly a pattern here, a genealogy that runs from McCarthy to Gingrich to Cruz. The problem, if you care about the Republican Party, is that they have lost far more battles than they have won since 1932. Alf Landon ran against FDR in 1936 by promising to repeal Social Security; in 1964 Barry Goldwater crusaded against the Civil Rights Act in his campaign against Lyndon Johnson. Both candidates were routed. Likewise, last year Mitt Romney campaigned to kill the Affordable Care Act and he didn't do so well either.

Since the New Deal, much of Republican political program has been deeply unpopular with a consistent majority of Americans -- whether the economic policies to shift money from the middle to the top, or policies to despoil the environment, or the laws that intrude on women's reproductive freedom. Political extremism -- from the communist witch hunts of the 1950s to the government-is-coming-to-get-you hysteria we have now -- has proved a useful distraction from a political agenda that many Americans don't like.

As demagogues go, Ted Cruz is no Joe McCarthy, at least not yet. Cruz's performance in the current budget shenanigans would seem to prove the wisdom of Karl Marx when he wrote that history repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce.

But with Congress ground to a halt because of its lunatic fringe, Republicans would do well to remember what journalist Edward R. Murrow said in 1954 about McCarthyism: "No one man can terrorize a whole nation unless we are all his accomplices."

Steven Conn teaches history at Ohio State University. His most recent book is "To Promote the General Welfare: The Case for Big Government" (Oxford University Press).