It's important that a range of Republican leaders, from Sen. John McCain to House Speaker John Boehner to embattled Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown, have denounced Michele Bachmann's unhinged attacks on Hillary Clinton aide Huma Abedin for alleged (and apparently nonexistent) family ties to the Muslim Brotherhood. They have created a rare new GOP zone of political decency that it would be great to widen. We should applaud it.
And yes, I called Bachmann our 21st-century Joe McCarthy in lipstick on MSNBC's "Hardball" Thursday. Some on the right are frothing over that, but I don't know why. Her former campaign manager, Ronald Reagan advisor Ed Rollins, compared her anti-Abedin crusade to McCarthyism, too. Frankly, it should be easy for the party's mainstream to condemn her wing-nuttery, but until now, few leaders have done so. The big names attacking Bachmann over the last two days could be a welcome sign that some Republicans know they have to pull their party back from the brink of hateful irrelevance. Let's hope so. (Bachmann responded to the pressure by expanding her witch hunt to include Minnesota Democrat Keith Ellison, the lone Muslim in the House, who she now claims has a “long record” of association with radical Islamists in the Muslim Brotherhood.)
At the same time, it's hard not to notice that Bachmann's crackpot crusade is on a continuum with the long-term GOP movement to demonize Democrats as an enemy within, going back to McCarthyism, and more specifically, to de-legitimize President Obama with scary references to Muslims in his family. Islamophobia has been building throughout this century, after 9/11, but it became a red-state obsession in the 2010 midterm election, driven by the right's Obama hatred and its commitment to turn him out of office in 2012.
You had red-state Tea Party candidates campaigning against imagined sharia law in the U.S. as well as New York's so-called Ground Zero Mosque (which by the way opened without incident once election season was over). It's hard to imagine a similar right-wing anti-Muslim crusade, with so little provocation, if our president wasn't named Barack Hussein Obama. So today, when Bachmann insanely hits a loyal Obama State Department employee with charges of fealty to Islam over the U.S., it's clearly driven by the larger right-wing project to depict the president as un-American and foreign, by any means necessary. It would be wonderful if the Republican leaders incensed by Bachmann's silliness would likewise denounce efforts by Romney surrogates like John Sununu and Rush Limbaugh to demonize the president in similar if not identical terms.
I discussed the GOP's mixed messages about Bachmann and Obama on "Hardball" Thursday with GOP consultant John Feehery. To his credit, Feehery joined the growing roster of Republicans denouncing Bachmann (though he defended her anti-Abedin colleagues like Birther Trent Franks and crackpot Louie Gohmert as "good guys"). But he wouldn't acknowledge that Bachmann's extremism is on a continuum with routine GOP attacks on Obama's American roots. It was a heated debate; watch: