Joe McCarthy and the Debt-Ceiling Destroyers

David Frum writes:

Tip O’Neill, the former speaker of the House, was asked at his retirement in 1987 how Washington had changed since he arrived in 1953. He answered, “The people are better. The results are worse.”

What he meant: There are many fewer drunks in government than there used to be. Fewer crooks. Fewer ignoramuses. Fewer cheaters and sexual harassers. Yet back when Congress contained many more drunks and crooks and cheaters, nobody doubted that it would vote to pay the American national debt. This summer, a better educated, more sober, more honest, and probably less adulterous Congress pushed the United States to the verge of national default.

Back in 1953 Joe McCarthy was in Congress. But even he didn’t suggest lowering the federal tax rate to zero, as Congresswoman Bachmann proposed the other day.

Imagine a Congress composed of Michelle Bachmann, Alan Grayson, Keith Olbermann, Michael Moore, Rush Limbaugh, and Grover Norquist. Could be fun, huh?

Actually, I think it’s not a bad analogy, Joe McCarthy and the debt-ceiling destroyers. In both cases, you have congressmembers going beyond what anyone might ever have thought possible. Also, in both cases, it’s not quite clear what the aggressors’ goals are, or what they would they do if they were to “win.” McCarthy appeared on track to continue finding Communists everywhere with no end in sight. As for Bachmann et al.: What would they do after the U.S. defaulted on its debt, after the government stopped paying teachers, cops, soldiers, etc.? At that point, a follow-up crusade against gay marriage would be a bit of an anticlimax, no?

8 Responses to Joe McCarthy and the Debt-Ceiling Destroyers

  1. Greg Weeks September 24, 2011 at 5:49 pm #

    Joe McCarthy and the Debt-Ceiling Destroyers would also be a great name for a band.

  2. RobC September 24, 2011 at 6:55 pm #

    Come on, why stop at comparing them to Joe McCarthy? Surely there’s a Hitler analogy you’re just dying to make.

    • Andrew Gelman September 24, 2011 at 9:18 pm #


      Take your disagreement to Frum: he was the one who referred to drunks in Congress when Tip O’Neill arrived in Washington in 1953, and Joe McCarthy was the #1 drunk in Congress at the time.

      If you would like to make a Hitler analogy, feel free to do so. It’s a free country! If I were “dying to make” such an analogy, then, believe me, I would’ve made it. I’m a pretty uninhibited blogger.

      • RobC September 25, 2011 at 12:11 am #

        Andrew, Frum didn’t talk about Joe McCarthy, you did. If you going to smear people, then for God’s sake, own it. Don’t pretend you’re just a passive transmitter of somebody else’s smear. Even Joseph Goebbels wouldn’t have evaded responsibility as you’re trying to. See how offensive that is?

        • Andrew Gelman September 25, 2011 at 1:46 am #

          I dunno . . . if you want to make a Hitler analogy, I think you can do better than that!

          In the meantime, I’ll continue to think “Joe McCarthy” whenever I hear “drunk congressman from 1953.” And if someone starts talking about vegetarian German politicians from the 1930s, I just might mention the H-man.

          • matt w September 25, 2011 at 8:06 pm #

            I really think that O’Neill can’t have been thinking of McCarthy when he said that; surely he wouldn’t claim that McCarthyism produced good results? Not to mention that in 1953 Congress was still a decade away from passing the major civil rights acts. His comments sound to me like the rosy glow of nostalgia more than anything else, particularly because 1987 doesn’t strike me as a time of particular political dysfunction. I don’t have a way of quantifying this, but I think the dysfunction started in 1993 with the Dole-Gingrich Republicans’ wholesale rejection of any cooperation with a Democratic president.

            On the other hand, we don’t need to reach for McCarthy comparisons to conclude that Republicans’ behavior has been scandalous. When was the last time a party held the country’s creditworthiness hostage, or planned to change the rules of a presidential election in order to subvert the will of the people if necessary, or seriously considered nominating someone who had threatened to secede from the US? Comparisons are beside the point.

            Also, I’m not sure where Frum gets the idea that there are fewer ignoramuses in today’s Congress. We certainly seem to be well supplied (and not lacking in sex scandals, either).

  3. GeraldY September 24, 2011 at 8:49 pm #

    “Imagine a Congress composed of Michelle Bachmann, Alan Grayson, Keith Olbermann, Michael Moore, Rush Limbaugh, and Grover Norquist.”

    The false equivalence here undermines your point. Bachmann is an elected representative and Limbaugh and Norquist have very influential roles within the Republican party network. Do you really want to suggest that Olbermann and Moore have similar influence? (And, by the way, according to DW Nominate scores, Grayson, was only the 116th most liberal member of the 111th Congress.)

    Although it may seem to be “objective,” the “pox on both houses” attitude of professional political scientists is not an accurate representation of reality.

  4. Talleyrand September 26, 2011 at 8:50 am #

    I agree with GeraldY. You are struggling when your false equivalence includes Michael Moore, who is not even part of the political scene and is not even clearly on one “side”. And why on earth is Grayson on this list?

    This is the sort of thing that makes it seem as if Gelman, who studies American politics, does not actually understand much about it, despite all the fancy graphs.