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Why Republicans are talking about the Holocaust and Joseph McCarthy

Republican presidential hopeful and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee fields questions at the Family Leadership Summit at Stephens Auditorium on July 18, 2015, in Ames, Iowa.
Republican presidential hopeful and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee fields questions at the Family Leadership Summit at Stephens Auditorium on July 18, 2015, in Ames, Iowa.
Scott Olson/Getty Images

If it seems like the Republican presidential candidates are getting a little more outlandish in recent days, there's a very good reason: Their first debate is less than two weeks away, and not everyone will make the cut.

Only the candidates polling in the top 10 will win a coveted spot on the stage. And even for those who seem like safe bets to earn a spot, pumping up poll numbers is a good way to define and strengthen their position heading into the August 6 Fox debate in Cleveland.

That helps explain why Rick Perry spent an entire speech likening Donald Trump to cancer and Joseph McCarthy, Ted Cruz called Mitch McConnell a liar on the Senate floor, and Mike Huckabee, who has lost ground in the polls, compared President Barack Obama to a Nazi who would "march [Israelis] to the door of the oven" because he and other world leaders struck a nuclear deal with Iran.

"The unprecedented politics of a crowded, competitive field bottle-necked in an unworkable but critical juncture compels such a strategic imperative," said Mary Matalin, who was a top adviser to President George H. W. Bush but has not endorsed any of the GOP candidates for 2016. "It is necessary but will prove to be insufficient."

They all have to find a way to stay in the game, whether it's pure name recognition or zeroing in on small pockets of support in ways that could be problematic for them later in the primary season or in a general election.

The Perry approach

Rick Perry's is the most ingenious of the mad-as-hell plays. If Trump is going to be divisive — and much of the Republican Party finds him repugnant — there may be a way to build a constituency by being the most vehement Trump-basher. That's not easy to do. South Carolina Sen. Lindsay Graham called Trump a "jackass" after Trump said he wasn't impressed by John McCain getting captured during the Vietnam War. But Perry found a way.

"Donald Trump’s candidacy is a cancer on conservatism, and it must be clearly diagnosed, excised, and discarded," Perry said last week. In the same speech, he invoked the famous shaming of McCarthy, the anti-Communist witch hunter of the Red Scare 1950s, by Army General Counsel Joseph Welch.

When a candidate under the Republican banner would abandon the tradition of magnanimous leadership of the presidency, when he would seek to demonize millions of citizens, when he would stoop to attack POWs for being captured, I can only ask as Senator Welch did of Senator McCarthy: ‘Have you no sense of decency, sir?’

Here's why Perry's approach is so smart: He's not saying anything that would disqualify him from serious consideration for the presidency. Right now, he's ranked 11th in the RealClearPolitics average of national polls at 2 percent. Perhaps he'll get that late-poll bump that ensures he gets a chance to redeem himself from his 2012 debate performance.

Huckabee and the Holocaust

Over the weekend, Mike Huckabee broke the iron rule of winning debates: He compared something to the Holocaust. When you bring up Hitler or the Nazis, you lose. But, as my colleague Max Fisher brilliantly points out, there are two pretty definable constituencies for his position.

The first, in an irony that should be troubling to anyone who doesn't think the destruction of Israel and the obliteration of the Jewish people are Obama's goals, is pro-Israel Jewish hard-liners. The Israeli government has invoked the Holocaust to describe the deal, which proponents believe will protect Israel from the prospect of an Iranian bomb. Even if you believe Obama is naive and walking into a trap, his actions are a far cry from Hitler's methodical attempt to exterminate the Jewish people.

The second is Huckabee's traditional base of evangelical Christians, many of whom are as strident about Israel as hawkish Jews.

Huckabee is likely to get a ticket to the debate. But he's lost ground in polls since Trump's entry. He was pretty consistently in the low double digits in May and now finds himself with a RealClearPolitics average of 6 percent. Given his Holocaust remarks, it seems likely that he'll get a chance to make his case on Israel at the first debate and perhaps improve his standing.

Cruz's brand management

Cruz is turning a potential liability into a fight that could strengthen his standing with Republican activists.

Senate action on a highway bill last week represented a real threat to Cruz's brand — not because of the base legislation, but because McConnell set the table to use it as a vehicle for reauthorizing the Export-Import Bank, which backs loans and loan guarantees to help foreign purchasers buy American goods. Cruz has been a leading critic of the bank, which is a pet issue for many economic conservatives.

To keep his brand intact, Cruz had to explain why the bank reauthorization slipped past him. His charge: McConnell lied.

What we just saw today was an absolute demonstration that not only what he told every Republican senator, but what he told the press over and over and over again, was a simple lie. ... We know now that when the majority leader looks us in the eyes and makes an explicit commitment, that he is willing to say things that he knows are false. That has consequences for how this body operates.

Cruz is facing a serious backlash from fellow senators for abrogating the decorum of the Senate and for generally being a pain in their necks. But that actually turns the Ex-Im Bank into a win-win for Cruz: He gets more attention for wanting to kill it, and he can present himself, yet again, as an outsider at war with the GOP establishment in Washington. Given that he's sitting deep in the pack of presidential hopefuls, he could use a burst of enthusiasm from activists.