In January, the South Florida Sun- Sentinel asked GOP Rep. Allen West whether Mitt Romney is a flip-flopper. “Look, I’m not into name calling, all that kind of stuff,” he replied. He wouldn’t be making an endorsement, he explained, because “it’s none of my business” and he wanted to focus on representing the people of his district.
Fast-forward a few months to a town-hall meeting where he thought no one was listening, and there he is calling members of the Progressive Caucus — which I co-chair — a bunch of card-carrying communists. His office doubled down when asked for an explanation: “The Communist Party has publicly referred to the Progressive Caucus as its allies. The Progressive Caucus speaks for itself. These individuals certainly aren’t proponents of free markets or individual economic freedom.”
Here he was calling us a bunch of communists on the one hand and blaming the White House for inventing the story on the other. As Joseph Welch said to Sen. Joe McCarthy in 1954, you’ve done enough, Rep. West. Have you no sense of decency?
Never mind that his comments are on video, or that his congressional staff sent an on-the-record statement to the world. If the political winds are blowing against him, it’s never a bad time to spin.
I know Rep. West has plenty of admirers who believe he was just telling it like it is. But I also know the vast majority of Americans, in and out of Washington, whether they follow politics or don’t, whether they vote Republican or Democratic, think very little of Congress right now, and I know Rep. West is gleefully making the problem worse. He thinks nothing of bringing negative attention to himself and his district for the sake of a headline.
This is part of a larger pattern that hasn’t gone unnoticed. President Obama has been called everything under the sun since the day he took office. Mainstream Republicans have thought nothing of calling him an Islamic radical, a fascist, a socialist, an un-American plant from Indonesia or Africa, and a pawn in a scheme for world domination.
One of my Republican opponents this year, a woman named Gabriela Mercer, called me an anti-American communist in February.
For decades, this kind of thing was hidden in John Birch Society pamphlets and private meetings in back rooms. People were too sensible, or ashamed, to push it in public. But once extreme right-wing conservatives found they could start name-calling, smearing and lying without consequence, they got hooked. Now they couldn’t kick the habit even if they wanted to.
We all remember the name-calling bully on the playground. Sometimes he was popular, sometimes he was just bigger, but he was always loud and obnoxious and didn’t care who he punched. Eventually most people grow out of that phase — instead of being impressed by how loud we can shout or how many people we can hit, we grow up and learn to appreciate other people for who they are. Sometimes that doesn’t happen, and when it doesn’t happen in politics, you get name-calling and wild punches instead of ideas.
That’s what this is really about. When these same extreme right-wing conservatives are unable to defend what they really believe, they change the subject and lash out at their imagined enemies. When voters, or his own colleagues, challenge Rep. West to explain his misguided notion that “if you support Medicare, you can kiss the United States of America goodbye,” or his idea that government efforts to reduce unemployment are “an insidious form of slavery,” or his unusual comments that we need to spend more on war and military contracts, he doesn’t know what to say. So he calls us communists.
Those of us who believe we’re all in this together, who stand up for Medicare, who try to create jobs and reduce poverty, and who believe war is a last resort that’s pushed us deep in debt are proud of our records.
Governing shouldn’t be a contest between those who take the public good seriously and those who just want a megaphone for their conspiracy theories, but that’s where we at right now. Voters, and the press, should take note.
Hopefully this upcoming election, and the future of this country, can be about more than repeating the McCarthy era. We’re better than that.
Grijalva is co-chairman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.