"Have you no sense of decency sir, at long last?"
-- John Welch, special counsel for the U.S. Army, to Sen. Joe McCarthy
History tells us that McCarthyism ended when Red-baiting Sen. Joe McCarthy took on the U.S. Army. In the early 1950s, Americans lived in fear of Communist agents and of being falsely labeled as one. So we tolerated attacks on Hollywood and institutions like the State Department, much like we do today. Not until 1954, when McCarthy took on the military, did the country begin shedding his pernicious influence.
Getting rid of state Rep. Daryl Metcalfe may not be so easy.
Metcalfe, of course, is the Butler County Republican who made headlines by denouncing Operation Free, a veteran's group that argues climate change is a national security threat. In an e-mailed response to a statewide Operation Free bus campaign, Metcalfe insisted that any veteran who promoted "the leftist propaganda of global warming" was "a traitor to the oath he or she took to defend the Constitution of our great nation!"
Metcalfe has made a career of such antics: Earlier this year, he opposed a House resolution opposing domestic violence because he feared it would advance the gay agenda. But this time, the outrage was more widespread, coming from military veterans and civilians alike.
A Democratic challenger for Metcalfe's seat, Zach Byrnes, has already emerged. Another veteran's group, VoteVets.org, is airing ads calling for Metcalfe's resignation. Bryan Lentz -- a Delaware County legislator who served as an Army Ranger and earned a Bronze Star -- has called on Metcalfe to apologize.
The response would be heartening ... if I weren't so sure that Metcalfe wanted it. After all, when he sent out his e-mail, he forwarded his message to every member of the state Legislature. This was a guy looking to stir something up.
Indeed, Metcalfe argued that his critics were part of a vast left-wing conspiracy, many of whose members "receive funding from billionaire George Soros."
Soros has long been a boogeyman for the right wing. But strip away the fear-mongering and this issue isn't that hard. For starters, the U.S. has numerous military bases -- in Florida, in Diego Garcia -- that are just a few feet above sea level. Even if the threat of rising seas really were mere speculation, a military commander who didn't take the threat seriously would be in dereliction of duty. If anybody deserves the label of traitor here, it's Metcalfe. He's the one urging complacency about threats to military installations.
But of course, none of this is about climate science, or even military readiness. It's about political theater.
Metcalfe's political jujitsu is a common right-wing tactic: Make ridiculous allegations about people you disagree with, and when they respond, whine about how you're being persecuted. (See, for example, Rush Limbaugh's whining about how, after years of making racially loaded remarks, he was dropped from a group seeking to buy the St. Louis Rams.) If you're a conservative, being on the losing end is a winning move -- about the only one conservatives still have these days. Right-wing voters respond well to claims of victimhood -- at least when they apply to aging white guys. The GOP doesn't really have any ideas, but if they've pissed off Soros, they must be doing something right.
Certainly Metcalfe's stunts haven't hurt him so far. In the past four elections, Metcalfe has either been unopposed, or trounced his challenger 2-to-1. Next year is shaping up as more of the same. According to state voter-registration figures, between the November 2008 election and mid-October, the number of Butler County Republicans has grown by more than 1,000 -- outpacing Democratic gains by nearly 20 percent.
But Metcalfe's biggest advantage is this: Just like McCarthy, he's not the only one making a career out of Red-baiting. Calling liberals "traitors" sells books for Ann Coulter and earns ratings for Fox News. I used to think that the only way Metcalfe might lose re-election was if he bit the head off a chicken at a 4-H club gathering. But having witnessed the carnival freak-show that is Fox News' Glenn Beck, I'm not sure even that would do it.
The problem, in other words, isn't just that Daryl Metcalfe has lost his sense of decency. It's that too many of the rest of us have.